The Chief of Service ushered me into the room, but said nothing. His staff of fifteen looked at the Chief with expectation and, upon realizing that he was looking at me and probably wasn’t go to say anything—including my name or the reason for my visit—the fifteen people joined him in looking at me.
“Hi,” I said, taking the cue and flashing The Winning Smile. This is my name, this is my title, and this is why I’m here: As a psychiatrist, I think there is overlap in the work that we do and in the patients that we see—
“Is it okay if we refer to your patients as ‘wackos’?” the Chief blurted out. Nervous laughter twittered among his staff.
“I’d prefer that you didn’t.” My voice was light; my face was dark.
“Oh. I guess another psychiatrist should have told me that.” He was still smiling.
“I hope I’m not the first one to do so.” When he finally saw the lasers shooting from my eyes, his smile dissolved and he looked down.
There are several reasons why I believe that social skills are not his forte:
- He either chose not to or did not think he needed to introduce me to his staff.
- As a Chief of Service he should have known better than to say such things in front of his entire staff.
- This exchange occurred within five minutes of us meeting each other.
I think his question—“Is it okay if we refer to your patients as ‘wackos’?”—was his honest effort to connect his staff and me together. Everyone would have a good laugh, we’d share something in common, and we could move forward with greater ease. He thought his comment was benign.
It makes me wonder, though: Had he made a similar comment in the past to another psychiatrist? And had that psychiatrist laughed? Did a ridiculous repartee follow?
Did another psychiatrist reinforce this sort of behavior?
He’s not a “schizophrenic”. He’s a guy with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Maybe he’s even a guy who is skilled guitar player, a father of two children, and has a degree in political science who happens to have a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
She’s not a “brittle diabetic”. She’s a woman with a diagnosis of diabetes. Maybe she has a knack for training dogs, has a remarkable talent for singing, and was on her way to law school when she was first diagnosed with diabetes.
People are people with various interests, talents, and potentials. They are not their medical conditions.
No one is a “wacko”.
The Chief of Service sent me an e-mail later:
Thank you for visiting us and also for your gentle way of reminding me of my crudeness and insensitivity. I am sure you hear enough negative attitudes towards your clients that you would welcome the opportunity to create a more positive attitude towards mental health issues.
I actually don’t hear many “negative attitudes” about my patients. Perhaps this is because every moment can be a teaching moment and, over time, people learn not to use such language (at least around me). As I noted several years ago:
Doctors, like most people, often assign adjectives to patients because it can be hard to identify and then acknowledge emotions. It is much easier to say, “She is such a difficult patient! She is never happy with her care!” than to say, “I feel angry and helpless when I see her because it seems like nothing improves her symptoms!” Leaving out the subjective “I” gives the illusion of objectivity and professionalism.
I can only hope that the Chief of Service shared his reflection about his “crudeness and insensitivity” with his staff.