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How a Plain Coffee Mug May Make Me a Better Doctor

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Shortly before I graduated from medical school, a little box arrived at my house addressed to “Dr. Kathleen Ackert.” This was exciting, as no one had ever addressed me by my soon-to-be doctoral title before. I eagerly ripped it open to find a sweet card from a schoolmate in the year below me and a mug with a photo of a cartoon uterus, fallopian tubes, and cervix with the inscription, “Dr. Ackert, At Your Cervix.” I smiled, because it seemed as every single ob/gyn that I had met along my path to doctorhood had one of these cute mugs. 

I started using this mug for my coffee every morning as I packed up my belongings and moved from Philadelphia to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I couldn’t wait to be just like the residents and attendings I had worked with for the last four years, running around Labor and Delivery checking cervixes, delivering babies, and operating laparoscopically. I slowly but surely progressed through my intern year, delivering close to 300 babies, becoming comfortable with laparoscopic entry, met my case numbers for D&C and even sat on the robot twice.

One Monday morning after a busy week as the junior resident on Labor and Delivery, combined with a rough 24-hour weekend call where I had delivered a casual 30 babies in total, I opened up my kitchen cabinet and blearily looked at all my mugs. I stared at my favorite mug — the one with the cartoon lady bits — before reaching for the one directly next to it, a maroon mug with a navy and gold “K”. I didn’t want to be Dr. Ackert that morning. I just wanted to be Kathleen. I let myself stand there for a moment as my coffee brewed, envisioning what it would look like to work in an office from 8 to 5. My alarm clock wouldn’t be set for 4:30 a.m. each day, I could reliably make plans with my friends after work knowing I wouldn’t get stuck in the OR until late in the evening, and I wouldn’t have to choose which holidays I wanted to spend at the hospital, away from my family, working a 24-hour shift. The timer on my coffee pot beeped, bringing me back to reality. My coffee was ready, and it was time for me to become Dr. Ackert, no matter what my mug said.

Residency is a cabinet of diverse coffee cups. There are days I have felt like the coolest surgeon alive. I have a fond memory of doing my first retroperitoneal dissection with my chairman and chief resident to identify and dissect out the ureter and infundibulopelvic ligament in an ovarian torsion case. But there have also been days in which I make silly mistakes that I wonder who decided I was worthy enough to be a doctor. 

Perhaps I should gather up all the mugs that place me into a box of who or what I should be that day and store them away. I could use my mug that declares “Coffee Until it’s Time for Wine!” on a daily basis, but that may tempt me into drinking a glass of wine each evening instead of spending my free time with my required readings or charts of patients of whom I will be operating on the next day. I could use my mug labeled “Müg” – pronounced “moog” with an umlaut over the “U” that I bought from the gift shop of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia because it made me laugh. I could use my mug that says, “Good Morning!” with an elephant under it, a personal favorite because it holds 16 ounces, double the amount of coffee the rest of my mugs hold, a sure sign that it will be a good morning indeed. Or perhaps I should buy myself a set of plain white mugs, so that I can start each day with a blank slate, fresh and determined to be the best human being and physician that I can possibly be. 

How do you get into your "I'm a doctor" mindset each day? Share your routines in the comments.

Kathleen Ackert is a resident physician in obstetrics & gynecology at St. Luke’s University Health Network. She is a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and Siena College. When she is not in the hospital, she can be found in coffee shops writing narrative medicine pieces or eating in restaurants that offer low-lit dining experiences. She enjoys exploring the latest fitness craze, watering her house plants, and instagramming pictures of fancy lattes at @caffeinewithkathleen. She is a 2021—2022 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Animation by Diana Connolly

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