Question: Which of the following people looks like a physician?
The man on the left is Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, a Mexican national and social critic, known for defending the Cuban Revolution. A very distinguished man, but not a doctor of medicine.
On the right is me, baggy-eyed rural family physician, attender of births, overworked hospitalist, and ever-hopeful blogger.
I post these photos, not for self-promotion (ha!), or even to promote the ideals of Professor Gonzalez Casanova, whose photo I chose for his distinguished mien and formal dress, but because I have lately been pondering a question: How important is a doctor's personal style?
I think about this question a lot because a frequent comment people make upon meeting me is, "Are you the doctor?" I'm not offended by this question because I know I don't look like a doctor. I don't know what I look like, actually, but I certainly don't look like a doctor. Why?
1. I'm not well-groomed. I usually blast out of the house without combing my hair, I don't wear make-up, and my daily costume consists of L.L. Bean's Pima cotton t-shirts and Perfect Fit (elastic waisted) pants, sturdy shoes, and one of many pairs of Hot Sox printed with cats, dogs, parrots, giraffes, sushi, pandas--usually in a contrasting color to the t-shirt and designed to distract toddlers from bursting into tears at the sight of the doctor.
2. I usually introduce myself as "Theresa Chan, the doctor covering today." For some reason, this is not sufficient for about 50% of people to grasp that I am the physician, not the discharge planner, physical therapist or nurse. Not that I mind being mistaken for these professionals, but it gets a bit awkward correcting people. However, I've never gotten into the habit of walking into a room and saying, "I'm Dr. CHAN."
3. My overall demeanor is best described as Jolly. I find human existence quite absurd and hilarious and I'm usually poking fun at my species. I laugh a lot. I've also settled into a rolly-poly physical stature, and with my round face, on a good day, I look a bit like Hotei, the Laughing Buddha--only wearing ridiculous socks.
As a consequence of this jolly disposition, I suppose, I end up using humor in my interactions with patients and medical staff. This makes the days go by a bit faster and, I've found, wins me a certain popularity which makes me a bit uneasy, because it has nothing to do with my clinical competence. It's a bit sobering to realize that a broad humor underlies my professional image.
We're a casual bunch of doctors up here in Rural. Most of the family docs are as dressed-down as I am--Birkenstocks, Hawaiian shirts, and ponytails on men are the norm--but some of the surgeons walk around in white coats. I have never been a fan of the doctor's white coat. I look like a proper idiot in a white coat.
I'm going to be attending a conference in San Francisco next month and I suspect I might be meeting with doctors who actually look like doctors, so I've been giving some half-hearted thought to sprucing myself up a bit. Yet I find I don't know how to go about doing this. Book myself for a $150 haircut? Buy a business suit from Talbot's? Get a chemical peel? A Coach briefcase? Have my teeth whitened?
I suspect, when the day arrives, I'll walk into the conference wearing an L.L. Bean Pima cotton t-shirt and Perfect Fit pants. Now that I've entered my 5th decade, I find it difficult to be other than I am. When I was a teen, I tried to get my hair to curl with foam rollers and curling irons. When I was in my 20s, I tried to turn myself into an academic theorist. Yet my hair always straightened out and I discovered I was woman of action, rather than theory. In the end, it never seems worth the effort to look differently than I am, even if it means no one thinks I'm a doctor.
The real question is: Which socks should I wear to the conference? Orange mermaids? Purple bats? Wasabi-green sushi? Blue cats reading books? There's a brain-teaser.