In a moment that shook the entire VA healthcare system, a VA patient immediately identified the woman who walked into his room in a long, white coat as his physician.
Mr. Bland, who was admitted only hours beforehand for his seventh episode of congestive heart failure in four months, shocked his health care providers when he said to the woman, “You must be my doctor.”
Bystanders, including the registered nurse, were so shaken by the unanticipated gesture of respect that they only spoke to our interviewer on the strict condition of anonymity.
“In twenty-one years of working at the VA, I’ve never seen that happen before,” the nurse reported to our investigative team. She appeared visibly shaken as she recounted the event. “He didn’t ask if she was the nurse or the physical therapist. He immediately called her ‘doctor.’”
She further elaborates that she considered calling a Rapid Response because of the exchange.
“I immediately assumed he was encephalopathic,” she explained, “but his CIWA score was normal. He was even alert and oriented times four. I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to do.”
Dr. Jennifer White, the survivor of this respectful exchange, spoke to us about how his blatant lack of sexism took her by surprise.
“I usually have to explain that I’m actually the doctor about three times in the same day,” she stated. “And even then, they tend to forget by the morning. It’s just easier to let them call me ‘nurse’ or ‘honey.’”
But Dr. White says that other women providers should brace themselves for a younger generation of veteran patients, who may not immediately objectify their female doctors as their predecessors did.
“At my home institution, patients tend to address me as doctor when they see my large, red ‘M.D.’ badge,” she said, “but here at the VA, being called ‘doctor’ by a patient is a bit of a culture shock. I was just starting my pre-rounds and I wasn’t ready for such a professional conversation. He even muted Fox News just to listen to what I had to say.”
She hopes to publish this case in the Southwestern Journal of Medicine as an example to her fellow female colleagues.
“I just hope that me speaking out will inspire other female providers to come out with their stories,” she said. “It turns out, we don’t actually have to beg for respect – we can just expect it.”