May 2, 2012. Richland, WA. My 60th birthday. I sat on the edge of my bed crying, no weeping, no sobbing so hard that bubbles of snot formed in both my nostrils.
What am I doing? Is this all there is? Why bother?
I shook my head and buried my snot-covered face in both hands. The muffled scream I made was not cathartic. I crawled back in bed and pulled the comforter over my head.
My life makes no sense! What is my purpose?
At age 9, I had a purpose. My purpose was to “get out!” If I didn’t, my future was a life in the “hood”, unwed mother of 12, sporting a gold tooth! I was a Negro in Virginia. The year was 1961. Escape was the only answer. And escape I did.
What now did I need to escape? I was in a good marriage. My two adult children were independent. My two condos were mortgage free. I was healthy. I was living the good life. Then what was making me slobber all over my nice BIG DOG nightshirt?
I was let go over a stupid lunch break! Not right! I’m done being a Doctor!
How could that be? It was all I EVER wanted to become.There was never a Plan B. Lynette D. Charity MD or bust! Becoming a doctor was my escape path from my dysfunctional life. Escape from my alcoholic, wife-beating, absentee Daddy. Escape from my stoic, punching bag Mama who almost died at the hands of her husband. Escape from MY neighborhood, THEIR neighborhood, and Mrs. Pollard, my guidance counselor, who told me “Colored girls don’t go to Medical School”. I saw this path one Monday night while watching a new TV drama on our Black and White Philco TV.
There was a blackboard and a hand holding a piece of chalk. As the hand drew symbols on the blackboard, a voice explained the symbols.
“Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity” the voice intoned.
This was followed by a man pushing a gurney through the doors of a hospital. A syncopated musical opening played in the background. “Dun dun dun dun dun dun”. I was mesmerized. The next image was of a man with thick dark hair, thick dark eyebrows, and a set of dark brooding eyes. His eyes looked directly at me. The actor’s name was Vince Edwards. HE was Ben Casey, MD.
I’m going to be a doctor just like Ben Casey!
Ben Casey became my role model. It never crossed my mind that this was a TV show with actors playing characters. It never crossed my mind that my “hero” was White and MALE! I saw becoming a doctor as my path to freedom, my path from my predetermined destiny. I accomplished that dream and now I wanted to quit?
Two weeks prior, I was a Staff Anesthesiologist at a local hospital. During my 33-year career, I taught residents, was an Army doctor, belonged to a group practice, was a solo practitioner, traveled to different states as a locum and practiced in Dubai, UAE. In 2001, I was the Chief of Anesthesiology at the very same hospital where I now found myself an employee. I was now a “seasoned” physician and preferred a clinical hands-on practice rather than pushing papers and attending meetings. I provided 26 weeks of coverage which left time to honor commitments at other facilities and have some R&R with my husband. As I said before, living the good life. A good work/play balance.
I tried to divest myself of department politics, but I did have opinions. Keeping those opinions to myself on this particular day, was impossible. Summoned to the Department Chief’s office, I entered clueless as to what was to transpire. The office, a drab windowless room, no larger than a glorified broom closet was furnished with a metal desk, bookcases, a couple of chairs and a trash receptacle.
The Chief, a very young-appearing man, wearing green scrubs, sat behind the desk reading a document. He looked up as I entered. There was that “this is serious” expression all over his face.
“Dr. Charity, please take a seat”.
Oh, such formality. What happened to just ‘Lynette’? It was ‘Lynette’ last week.
His “second-in-command”, also in OR attire, pointed to a metal chair pushed against the back wall of the office. She was a tall, slender young woman whose auburn hair peeked out from her OR hat.
Their combined careers were less than my one and I knew that!
She better make sure she tucks in that hair before going into the operating room.
The Chief spoke.
“Dr. Charity, we have a complaint from one of your colleagues”.
Now I know what this is about!
As an Anesthesiologist working in that hospital, I took call, which meant being available for 48-hrs one weekend/month, along with two to three monthly 14-hr night shifts. These long shifts were the “business as usual” model of medicine despite questions of safety due to doctor fatigue. The past weekend, I was “on-call” all day Saturday and “backup” call on Sunday. I worked in the OR for 19 hours on Saturday, finally going home at 2 am, falling into bed around 2:30 am. I was awakened at 6 am by a call from the hospital.
“We need you for a case at 8 am Dr. Charity.” the nurse responded after I said hello. “I knew about the case around 3 am, but I let you get some sleep before calling”.
Her shift was ending at 7 and her voice exuded her joy of “clocking out” and being done. I begrudgingly showered, dressed and went in. Upon arrival, I spoke with the surgeon and the patient and once we started, the procedure was completed around 10 am. I was so tired. I was so sleepy. Coffee was NOT going to fix this feeling.
As the “backup” Anesthesiologist, my job was to provide services for a second room. The primary Anesthesiologist that day was a doctor who preferred day-trading over Anesthesiology but needed a source of income for his side career. He was paid a salary whether he worked or not. And he preferred to NOT work as much as possible. He preferred to “turf” or give his patients to others citing obscure reasons such as “the patient is too sick for an anesthetic!” Sick or no sick, some patients still needed surgery AND an anesthetic.
I finished the case and left once my patient was discharged from the postanesthesia recovery area. And at any moment, there was the possibility that I would get another case. While changing my clothes to go home, I got a phone call.
“Lynette, where are you? You’re not home are you? I didn’t give you permission to leave. I have a big case. I will need you to give me lunch.” the male voice commanded.
“Yes, I am home. I finished my case and I’m now in bed.” I lied.
“Well, you need to come back in. I have a big case and I will need lunch!”
“Are you in your case now?”
“No, but it’s a big case! A neurosurgery case! Once I get started, I will need a lunch break!”
“Here’s a suggestion. It’s almost 11 am. You haven’t started your case. It’s obviously not emergent or you would have started by now. Take care of your needs and then do the case.”
“I want you to come in and give me a lunch break! You’re supposed to do that!”
“Listen, I was up all night. I came in for the case at 8 am. You have NOT been very busy today. I may be called in for a second room while you’re in your case. I need to get some sleep. I’m really tired. I’m not coming in unless there is a case for me. You can take care of yourself”.
“That is not how it works!”
“I’ve gotta go,” I said half-asleep.
I drove home in a semi-sleep state, showered and collapsed into bed not caring that I was sleeping under the bedspread, but not the top sheet. Too much effort needed to pull it back. I slept. No phone calls.
I was officially “off-call” at 0700 Monday morning. I didn’t have to go to work. I took it easy, still hazy from the weekend.
Now it’s Tuesday midday and I sat in the Chief’s office being admonished for NOT giving a lunch break!
No patient complained about my care during the weekend. No surgeon complained about my anesthetic management for their patients during the weekend. No nurse complained about my response time from notification of a case to being ready.
So what the hell is all THIS!
“Dr. Charity, when a colleague requests a lunch break, it is your obligation to provide that colleague with a break. Now I reviewed your cases from Saturday and Sunday. You were busy on Saturday, but Sunday…”
I interrupted, now getting flustered.
“Listen, I was not going to wait around. He had plenty of time to pee, poop and have lunch BEFORE the case started. It’s all about time management. When I left, the case had not started. Why should I stay?”
Number Two chimed in.
“Dr. Charity, you’re not a team player, are you? When a colleague asks for help, you need to give it.”
What? Help in an emergency, absolutely! Where was the emergency here?
“Yes, Dr. Charity. We are colleagues that help each other.” the Chief replied nodding his head.
I sat silently wedged against the corner wall quite dumbstruck by the chiding I was receiving over a lunch break or lack thereof. And then IT happened. By IT, a sensation that started in the depths of my bowels. A churning and grumbling at first. IT then traveled upward on its journey first stopping in my stomach, gurgling, acid producing, moving through my esophagus at breakneck speed and when I opened my mouth, it spewed.
“You’re an IDIOT!”
“DOCTOR Charity! THAT was inappropriate!” Number Two replied in a chastising voice. She stood to put more emphasis in her response.
Maybe it was inappropriate, but it was out. I couldn’t push rewind or a delete button. No dubbing available either.
I stood, glared up at her. She was taller than I was.
“I’m out of here! Move! We’re done!”
Lynette, that was NOT good!
I left the office and headed to the Doctor’s Lounge. When I entered, it was empty.
“I’m so glad no one’s here!” I thought.
I needed a moment to “regroup”. I closed my eyes and leaned back on the leather couch. I put my hands over my mouth. I didn’t want to inadvertently speak out loud.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Lynette. This is bad. It’s not like before. Docs get fired over stuff like this. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I really like working here.
I took a deep breath in, stood up, and returned to the operating room and finished the two cases assigned to me. I didn’t share my trip to the Chief’s office. I tried to just “forget”.
My termination letter arrived the following week. In brief, it read. “Dr. Charity. You have undermined the authority of the Chief of the Department of Anesthesiology. Your contract will not be renewed”.
I’m out because I didn’t give one Anesthesiologist a lunch break and I called another one an idiot. What about my experience? What about my patient care? What about my 12 years service to this community? This new age medical model sucks! I can’t believe I’m done! Maybe I should be done? Maybe I should just retire?
On my last day, my ID badge was deactivated. I was accompanied by a security officer to my locker and she observed while I removed my OR shoes, my stethoscope, pens, syringes, a spare set of scrubs, a white coat and some used OR bonnets. I put everything in a handled paper bag.
“Dr. Charity, you have to leave the scrubs.” the Security officer sternly remarked.
“I know,” I said rolling my eyes. I didn’t need them. I already had a good stash at home. Great sleepwear.
Once I emptied my locker, the officer escorted me down to the front door. No passing GO, no collecting $200. I was now just a resident of the community. All professional access denied. I threw the bag into the trunk of my car and drove the two miles home. The tears started and continued through the morning of my birthday. I had spent a week in bed circling the depression rabbit hole, using all my mental abilities to fight crawling in and never coming out.
What has happened to medicine, a career I walked through the jeers and dog-poop throwing White neighborhood as a young girl to achieve?
I laid under the covers reliving the event with different outcomes. What a waste of time. Finally, I pulled the comforter down and looked up at my bedroom ceiling. No answers there. I then looked at the sliding glass door to the right of the bed. The local bus zoomed by.
Lynette, get your ass out of bed! Enough of this nonsense. If you don’t want to be a doctor anymore, what DO you want to do?
I mulled this over.
And then it hit me. I sat up in bed, threw my legs over the side, stood up and shouted.
“I want to be a stand-up comic, lounge singer, voice-over actor!” That’s what I want to be!”