01 August 2012


One evening years ago, I happened to be studying in the law library of one of the most prestigious law schools nationwide. I was dressed nicely. It was getting late, and the library was nearly empty.

Imagine my surprise, then, when an attractive sorority girl in heels and a rather short skirt plunked down next to me and struck up a conversation. She seemed keenly interested in anything I said. After flirting with me for a couple of minutes, she asked what I was reading.

"It's a textbook on evolutionary biology." I said. "It's fascinating stuff!"
"Huh," she replied. "Why is a law student reading about evolution?"
"Oh, I'm not a law student. I'm an undergrad."

Her disappointment was palpable. Moments later, she was gone.

Before plunging back into my textbook, I mused: what would have transpired just then had I actually been a law student?

Now, years later, I am a medical student. Although my status as a second-year medical student carries little cachet, occasionally it affects how a person interacts with me. A few months back, while traveling between clinics, I had to dart into a market while wearing my white coat. The girl working the checkout stand was my age and started chatting me up. She seemed to be taking a deliberately long time to ring up my order. Sometimes when I've rotated in clinics, members of the ancillary staff have pulled me aside. They have asked me a few times how old I am and even whether I'm single. Some mothers have tried to give me their daughters' cell phone numbers.

At some level, it is nice feeling wanted and appreciated. Yet it bothers me that what garners attention usually doesn't seem to be me or my personality, but simply my belonging to the medical profession. I feel like these interactions sometimes don't happen for the right reasons. It makes me more guarded and suspicious of people's intentions. Part of me prefers the anonymity of when I was nothing more than a wide-eyed undergrad.

Our professors warn us to be cognizant of romantic advances, especially in the clinical setting. An otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) recounted to me one of the first patients he saw as an attending physician. An attractive female patient had come in with an ear complaint. During his examination, she loosened her gown, exposing her breasts. He was dismayed and terrified. No chaperone was present and the patient's state of undress could have given the appearance of something unseemly. Interestingly, a psychiatrist advised us that certain personality disorders make patients particularly prone to pushing the boundary between doctor and patient.

I imagine that as I progress towards becoming an attending physician, the effect I've noticed will become more pronounced. Being a physician will make some people more inclined to befriend me, and others less inclined to befriend me. Regardless, it will become increasingly difficult to dissociate my personal identity and my interpersonal relationships from my professional calling. Is this a good thing?

Medical school is dramatically altering the way I think and the way I perceive people. Perhaps it's only fair that it will alter the way some people see me, for better or for worse.