Friday, June 10, 2016

The power of the putdown


Last week Allison and I went to Toronto for a day so she could see a specialist about the jaw problems she's had these past couple of years. The appointment went well: the doctor suggested a wait-and-see approach, and booked us for a follow-up appointment with the oral surgeon at the same clinic eight months from now.

Allison saw a resident first; he was very pleasant and took her medical history and did a brief exam. He was being shadowed by a first-year dental student, who basically just stood in the corner and watched. Then they went off to consult with the senior dentist, whom we were booked to see. 

While we waited, I watched the activity in the hallway. It was a busy clinic. Another senior dentist was working across the hall. I could tell he was one of the head guys because he said (loudly) to his patient, "I guess it's OK if we use this room; my name is on the door." His patient, whose first language wasn't English, was inquiring about the fit of her dental plate, and he was contradicting her opinions in a way that seemed brusque and dismissive.

The resident and student soon came back with the doctor we were seeing. He was older than the doctor across the hall and was very nice and friendly. Allison clearly warmed to him, saying more to him in two minutes than she'd said to the resident in twenty.

Then the guy from across the hall stuck his head in and asked if he could "borrow" the resident for a few minutes. The dental student moved toward the door to go too, and the doctor laughed loudly and said, "No thanks, I don't need your incompetence!" Still laughing, he said with even more sarcasm, "Right, this is a problem that can only be solved by a first-year dental student!

The student laughed, too, but his face turned red and he was obviously embarrassed. Of course he hadn't been offering to come to provide expertise; most likely he just thought he should follow along and learn. He probably wasn't sure exactly what was expected of him and was all too aware of his lack of knowledge. And it wasn't like he'd made some rookie mistake or technical gaffe that earned him a scolding.


There's a saying attributed to Plato: "The measure of a man is what he does with power."  My exposure to this doctor was limited, I know; but if how he treated the student was a representative sample of what he does with power, then I don't think he measures up. He had a high status in the clinic, yet he felt the need to make fun of someone who was already at the bottom of the hierarchy, and for no real reason. It was a little unnerving, actually, that this was such an instantaneous response, and that he seemed to get so much enjoyment from it. 

It's nice to have prestige and skill in our field, but without a bit of consideration for those who don't (yet) have those things, they can be pretty hollow. I hope the student benefits from the experience, though -- that when he's an acclaimed doctor he'll treat awkward newbies with respect rather than unnecessary putdowns.
  

8 comments:

  1. I think it happens a lot in medicine. My sister, who just recently heard that she's finally made it to consultant, has experienced put-downs and undermining so many times she's probably lost count. Real leadership sets an example, in my opinion, and has no need to undermine the weaker. It's quite pathetic, really, to publicly humiliate someone less powerful. Like the polar opposite of what we're supposed to do as followers of Christ.
    Always food for thought, Jeannie, thank you.

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    1. Yes, "real leadership sets an example" -- that's a great point. I wonder if this student might feel apprehensive about asking this doctor for help if the situation arose. That would be so unfortunate. Thanks for your insight, Sandy.

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  2. Real leaders help those coming along behind to catch up, and are not bothered if they end up following the new leader. It's not about who's the leader. It's about where you're going.

    I bet this will be a great life lesson for Allison too, Jeannie. I'm glad you were there with her.

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    1. Thanks, Tim. I'm not sure if Allison noticed the exchange in the way I did or not, but it was powerful for me, and a good reminder.

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  3. Thank you for writing this reflection, Jeannie. I feel badly for that student who was shamed instead of being supported and valued as he deserved to be. I am reminded of my father's hospital experience earlier this year, with so many different people coming and going, a shifting array of doctors and residents, nurses and personal support workers, physio and palliative, etc. etc. etc. After my Dad passed away, my son asked me a thought-provoking question: "If you were to pick just one person in these past weeks who stands out in your memory as a shining star, who would it be?" And the person who came to my mind was the person who cleaned my Dad's room. While others came and went as medical personnel were constantly shifting, it was she who was there from beginning to end of my father's weeks in the hospital. She was the one who noticed (and notified staff) when his tray of food was brought but no one was there to help him eat it. She was the one who day after day had a cheerful word for him, a smile, a listening ear. She was a shining star during the darkness of that time, a witness to the fact that the help we need may come from unexpected sources.

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    1. That's beautiful, Franceen. An unsung hero(ine)--maybe she won't have her name on a door anywhere, but she deserves our recognition.

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  4. Gosh, that is terrible. Plato was right, I think.

    I'm thinking it would be a really good thing if that senior doctor could read this post...

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    1. Yes ... I'm not sure it would change anything, but it could be a bit of an eye-opener.

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