As I watched Donald Trump pace behind Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate, I noticed myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. At the time, I attributed my discomfort to the generalized anxiety accompanying this particularly contentious election cycle. It was only when I saw the Saturday Night Live parody of that debate that I realized what had truly spooked me. It was the way Alec Baldwin, playing Donald Trump, lurked menacingly behind Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary Clinton, throughout the event. It was on his final swerve across the frame, to the soundtrack of Jaws, that I understood the source of my distress. There was a time in my own past when a man had lurked menacingly behind me.
And there had been absolutely nothing funny about it.
I was a third-year medical student planning on a career in surgery. I come from a long line of surgeons, including my father, my grandfather, and several uncles and great-uncles. These were men dedicated to their craft, supremely confident and competent, and venerated by all who knew them. A few of them had treated me at key points in my own life. My grandfather, an ObGYN, had delivered me. My father, a neurosurgeon, had cared for me after a serious concussion. My uncle Harry, a general surgeon and the head of the local emergency room, had sewn up a gushing laceration on my forehead when I was seven. I wanted to be like them. To scrub into a sterile field and do what mere mortals couldn’t. To rid bodies of disease. To use modern technology to save lives.
It was the second day of my surgical clerkship and I was scheduled to work in the operating room with the only female attending in the department. It was the first surgery of the day, and I was to “assist” her, which, for an inexperienced student who barely knew how to maintain a sterile field, amounted to “cutting here” when a completed stitch required a trim. I was the only woman in the room aside from the attending. The residents surrounding the table were all men in various stages of training. The rotating nurse, who helped us don our sterile gloves and gowns, tying them expertly at the waist, was also a man. He made me uncomfortable from the moment I met him. He was loud, verging on rude, and strutted around the room as if he owned it, making loud interjections into others’ conversations. Although everyone else seemed unperturbed by his antics, I felt intimidated and on edge. After he tied my gown, he put his face uncomfortably close to mine, glared at me, and barked, “Do not move your hands out of the sterile field. Keep ‘em where you can see ‘em.” Then he put his hand on the small of my back and actually pushed me towards the table. Flustered, I took my place beside the attending.
There was something about the atmosphere that reminded me of a fraternity party from my college days. There was nothing overtly sexist happening, but the atmosphere felt harsh, with criticism, mean jokes, and posturing that made me uncomfortable. Having a woman in command felt reassuring.
“Scalpel,” she said, and the next thing I knew she was cutting open the skin of the belly before us. I felt suddenly lightheaded, but maintained my composure; I had heard stories of medical students fainting in the operating room and resolved not to follow in their footsteps. I stood stock still in my crisp paper gown, my face in a shell of warm breath behind my mask. I kept my hands rigidly at table level, willing myself not to scratch my face or let them anywhere out of the sterile field as I overlooked the exposed abdominal cavity. The patient’s intestines gleamed under the bright light of the operating room. The attending murmured her instrument requests to the resident across the table, instructing him step by step as they worked together to tie off any bleeding vessels. I was given threads to hold, and instructed to snip intermittently. I forgot about the nurse and my earlier discomfort, and became completely absorbed in the work. I felt flickers of competence, like I too could do this someday.
And then it all changed. (…) Read Full Article Here