I only found out over e-mail, when my nurse practitioner colleague forwarded it to me.
It all happened in the earliest stages of my career. I had a very sick patient on my consult service who was struggling, at the end of life and suffering a great deal of pain. The patient’s family had been able to plan a wonderful, much anticipated trip to a special place, and it was my job to find a way to control the child’s pain outside the hospital in a manner that would allow for a round-trip flight and some enjoyment at the destination. I did a lot of research, pulled strings with the pharmacy and home health service, held phone conferences with former mentors at other hospitals, and finally was able to come up with an acceptable plan that was easy to use and kept the patient alert enough to enjoy the trip. I taught the family how to use the medicines myself. After my week on service I handed over the service to my colleague and understood all went well.
Until I saw that e-mail.
The patient’s primary medical team sent out a big thank-you for all the hard work and preparation. The e-mail was directed not at me, but at my male colleague to whom I had handed over the service the day before the special trip. He was specifically named and complimented for his dedication to patient care and helping this child see their dying wish. I was incredulous. Did this really happen? The truth took a few moments to sink in, and I was angry.
It was a bit of a double-edged sword. Had I not seen the e-mail, I might have gone on without any recognition, which I never expected nor desired. However, seeing praise so readily heaped upon my colleague was an eye opener. I was very surprised that he was so glad to accept credit for something he did not do. I can only assume that he felt he deserved credit for what little he did in conveying a few final details from my plans.
Unfortunately, this story is all too common. Historically, we remember Rosalind Franklin, whose contributions to the discovery of DNA were under-recognized. A recent study showed that women on team projects (co-authors instead of single authorship) with males were less likely then men to get tenure. Even still, women in groups with men have been shown not to take credit for their work and use the pronoun "we" and not "I.”
I had already given notice at that job and was too frustrated to respond professionally. As I allowed my male colleague take credit for my work, I was just like all the other women in these studies.
Something needs to change. To be recognized for our contributions to medical care, we need to promote ourselves. This is a challenge, not just as a woman, but as a doctor who sees medical care as patient-centered. We do not want to make a production out of who gets credit for a job well done; we know our patients know who did the work.
But, sometimes, we can (and should) stand up to take ownership and say, "I did that."
For more narratives by women in medicine, please see this piece by the curator of this collection, Jessica Gold, MD MS, for links.