Trading My White Coat for a Hospital Gown
As a medical professional, I have never felt particular enthusiasm for wearing a white coat. It creates an impervious barricade; demarking the clear positions of a pure, healthy provider, and an ill, tarnished patient. Interestingly, doctors exclusively wore black until the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. These dark garments signified formality, as well as an elevated societal status. During these times seeking the assistance of a doctor implied seriousness, and was often a precursor to mourning. Additionally, the black cloth hid stains from a frequently hostile medical environment. As advances in microbiology evolved, similarly antiseptic standards emerged, which would forever alter the field of medicine. Doctors were expected to maintain proper hygiene, which could be accounted for with a pristine white coat. In doing so, this universal uniform of the profession quickly elevated the image of those who donned it.
The ceremonials of being presented with a white coat are much more profound than the action of placing any ordinary cotton, polyester blended jacket over the shoulders. Once the upper appendages are slipped into the sleeves, is the person instantly transformed into a competent, and ethical healthcare provider? Comparable to the comics when Peter Parker dons his iconic suit, alchemizing into his alter ego, Spider-Man. Traditionally, students are presented with a white coat in a ceremonial fashion which, signifies entrance into the profession of medicine. The formality being completed with the reciting of the famous Hippocratic Oath. This snow-colored covering symbolizes professionalism, honor, authority, and purity. Even when not wearing the coat, providers are expected to assume proper behaviors that represent this article of clothing at all times. As I was proudly robed with achromatic attire during my own traditional ritual, I failed to consider the future possibility that I myself might actually trade this iconic covering for more patient appropriate garb.
While earning a white coat clearly doesn’t protect a provider from personal illness, it can create an elusive façade, otherwise deceiving those who are bestowed with its greatness. The fact that medical practitioners are subject to the same ailments as their patients, is usually not evident until they themselves fall ill. I was one of those providers before I got sick. Although, I learned quickly after stumbling in and out of autoimmune flares since age thirty-seven with a disease that the medical community rarely affords attention to. Sjögren’s is the second most common autoimmune disorder, however, it remains the red-headed stepchild of such ailments. Concurrently, I began a battle with endometriosis, another misunderstood and underappreciated disease, which ultimately took six long years to officially diagnose. Infiltrating into my white coat, I secretly hoped it would obscure my own medical impurities. Was I trying to convince myself, along with others, that nothing was wrong? I essentially used the most virtuous of symbols in medicine to censor such darkness. I am surprised the great Greek physician himself didn’t strike me down for smudging such an honorable emblem. Apparently, my time to maintain the charade of “healthy” provider came to an end, as I had effectively traded my white coat for a less prestigious garment, a patient hospital gown.
As I found myself lying on a gurney, the other side of the metal rail staring me in the face; my visual field was flooded with sensory input of a very different vista. Medical practitioners have an obligatory responsibility to maintain good health, and those who falter encounter unexpected contempt. The stigma of sickness is unbiased, therefore impartial to all patients, whether medically educated or not. Illness is viewed as weakness, and most institutions neglect to teach students about the vulnerable patient perspective. Failure to reveal the contrasting viewpoints of treating a patient versus treating a disease result in the dehumanization of mortal beings. It seems the empathetic side of medicine is often left off medical education curriculum, and the role of patient is quite challenging to comprehend without actually becoming one.
The fragility of life, and ultimate mortality that us medical providers attempt to evade must be confronted head-on. I finally asked myself, what exactly is the function of a patient? Does it really entail complete passivity? It certainly represents exemplification of exposure, and therefore unmistakably authentic vulnerability. Extricating the dual sides of myself, both provider and patient is more than just a problematic task, but an inconceivable one. Whether enveloped in a stiff white coat or flimsy patient gown, we all inevitably must face our own fate.