I remember at the start of medical school they told us that we were not simply learning a profession, we were acquiring a new identity. Once a physician, always a physician. Indeed, I find it difficult to separate my physician self from my personal self — to turn off the doctor in me. If I find a treatment that works, I want to share it with my loved ones.
Maintaining a friendship with a patient can be difficult and fraught. My friend Rose and I have nevertheless succeeded. I first met her when she came to me as a patient some 30 years ago. We connected immediately — around the same age, both recently married, both looking to start a family. We continued to bond outside of a clinical setting, when she was no longer my patient.
Our next meeting was at Music Together, with our infant sons in tow. From then on, we met frequently in a group for new mothers and their children. And so it continued for a few years. When our sons were older, we would still run into each other several times a week in a neighborhood park, where we both went for our morning constitutional.
I had another, trickier situation with my longtime nanny and housekeeper, Maria. Over the course of 25 years in my employ, she has become like family. Unlike some assistants I’ve worked with, Maria never says, “Not my job.” Her reflexive response is, “I’ll do it.” She is always happy to do any work I give her, from proofreading my writing to washing my car.
At times, Maria, now 81, has shared her health concerns with me. Her blood tests have indicated that she is prediabetic. There was a time when I’d happily give her challah left over from Shabbos, or chocolate and sweets I received for Purim. But no more, now knowing her condition. Still, as tempting as it is to give Maria medical advice, I remind myself that she has her own doctor, and I must respect her relationship with him.
And yet, the other day, Maria showed me a bottle of green juice her grandson had bought for her. The first ingredient listed on the bottle was sugar. I struggled to maintain my cool in the face of this diabetogenic beverage.
In the past, I often found myself speaking harshly to Maria if I thought she wasn’t taking care of her health. But in recent years, I’ve managed to overcome this tendency, using a strategy I learned in parenting classes: writing it down. Perhaps from a combination of hearing loss and cognitive decline, Maria’s understanding of English (not her native tongue) has diminished from what it was 25 years ago. Communicating with her in writing has proved beneficial for both controlling my tongue and conveying my thoughts.
And so I was able to transmit my negative opinion of her grandson’s choice of beverage without undue emotion. Then, unable to restrain my physician self, I wrote out for her the essential elements of a low glycemic diet.
Finally, there’s Paulette, my dear friend and writing partner. Just this afternoon, I shared with her my exciting discovery that hydrogen peroxide and baking soda whitens the grout in my porcelain tile floor. The next thing I knew, she was asking me if hydrogen peroxide was the right thing to use on her stubbed and possibly infected big toe. Without getting too medical, I commented that my favorite disinfecting solution was a mixture of betadine, peroxide, and warm water.
“But how do you know if it's infected?” she asked.
“Well,” I answered, “if it’s red, painful, swollen, and hot, chances are it’s infected.” Then I told her how I’d recently found a swelling around my fingernails and shared this information in a video phone call with my doctor, who then prescribed me antibiotics.
Paulette doesn’t own a smartphone, but she immediately decided that calling her doctor and describing her stubbed toe would be the best course of action. And so, again, I managed to advise a friend without taking the place of her physician.
How do you separate your personal life from your professional identify? Share your experiences in the comment section.
Marjorie Ordene, MD, is an integrative physician practicing in Brooklyn, NY. Her essays, short stories, and poetry have been published in various magazines and anthologies including The Sun, Tablet, Lilith, and Michigan Avenue Review.
All names and identifying information have been modified to protect patient privacy or shared with permission.
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