For many years I thought I should have been born a boy. I hated the impracticality of skirts and dresses, which you had to be so careful with. I always liked long hair but couldn’t see what the problem was, with it being tangled, messy, and not tied back properly. Favourite colours were grass green and sky blue. Baby pink reminded me of Barbie and made me cringe. One year, I was bought a crimson top, and I was annoyed at my parents for wanting me to wear such a hideous colour. During much of high school, I was suspicious of any clothing that wasn’t in plain whites, beiges, or blacks. I would happily wear an old or random cartoon character T-shirt and shorts everywhere, to church, to meet my mum at her office (to her dismay). Well, the weather is hot and why would you bother otherwise. To this day, she’d often say, can’t you put in more effort? Wear something nice, please?
Then the wardrobe started to change and partly it was because what I liked became more important than what other people might think. But funnily, I think my little sister’s wardrobe also had a large impact. Children’s clothes are bright, pretty, and colourful. One of my favourite hair clips is a glittery butterfly clip that I “stole” from my sister’s box of hairclips, and I discovered my liking for plastic swirly hairbands (no metal part to pull on your hair, or weak connecting parts to stretch and loosen) when I ran out of my own and had to use one of hers. Sometimes when we go out, we would wear similar outfits, for fun. Earlier this year dad remarked in all seriousness, you know, you’re not a teenager anymore, maybe you should dress your age. I laughed and said, but I do, at work. And I’m sick of it.
Before clinicals, I couldn’t understand the rationale behind having a dress code, as a medical student. Nevertheless, collared shirts used to be exciting, until ironing became too much work. But towards the end of clinical school, as much as I prefer twirling with my hair and not kinking it with ponytails and buns, I realised that messy hair over your face is both a practical issue, and an issue of how you present yourself. (I guess I finally understood how the phrase “let your hair down” came about too.) The eight year old seemed to understand the importance of appropriate self presentation better than I did. So one day, we were trying on a dress and I pondered, could I wear this in the hospital. My sister said, noooo! it looks evil and you are going to make everyone feel worse but if you are beautiful then people are going to feel better. Maybe not. But point taken, a black dress with studs is probably not the best look for a caring doctor.
The wardrobe with colourful colours, has also acquired multiple articles of blacks and dark coloured pieces, simple dresses with stockings, half sleeve jackets, conventional cardigans, and such things. I suspect this is partly responsible for making the comment and how old are you, a less common occurance. What to wear on nights though, is quite a conundrum. Not overdressed, but not so casual that you look like a random patient or family member wandering in and out of bays and beds. Not your favourite shirt because a vomit or bleed is more likely than during day jobs. Something to keep warm because middle of the night is always cold. Why don’t we have uniforms like nurses, or white coats to make things simple (deciding each day is fun though, I admit).
I think the different wardrobes too, are a deliberate separation who you are at work, and who you are socially or at home. Beyond different styles, your persona changes too. In a way, it’s necessary. As a student I gradually realised often it was more comfortable for everyone if you don’t try to be overly polite, constantly shifting out of the way or shrinking to the back of the room trying not to be intrusive, or being profusely apologetic about taking a history from the patient before the doctor sees them. Working now, I find that even if it’s not in your habit to instruct others, or your nature to be confident, giving clear instructions without too much hesitation to both patients and other staff is part of what you have to learn to do. Not that you should bluff your way through, but reassuring people effectively seems to be a large part of what we do and being unsure isn’t that reassuring.
I do wonder though, where that line is between confident and arrogant, clear and curt, instructive and pushy. There was a doctor who I initally thought was not very approachable, and leaning towards the latter of those descriptive pairs. Later I noticed the same person was quite different, caring and approachable, speaking with a much warmer tone even at work, when they wasn’t in their doctor role. It made me look at myself and wonder whether hospital work was changing my persona, changing my character even, and how quickly that was happening. After a busy night I sometimes wonder, when did I become so abrupt in my questions and responses. When did I start to label people just by seeing how thick their notes are and how many times they’ve presented to the emergency department. When did I become so unsympathetic, unflinchingly watching someone in pain, hearing about someone’s depressive mood and suicidal thoughts and thinking – tell someone who cares. When did I start to feel that nurses were exasperating and often calling for no good reason. When did I walk into wards, doing my job, but being deliberately aloof. One of the first registrars I worked with often said, you’re always smiling, it’s nice. When did I stop smiling at people.
I wonder if my friends or family would be surprised if they saw how I am at times, in the hospital. If I, as a doctor, came face to face with the girl wearing faded hoodies and rabbit flip flops, what would she think, and would she be disappointed.