Gender bias in Medicine

Female Residents

Female Residents

Despite the bias against women in medicine, my period of training coincided with a time when women were just beginning to make great strides integrating themselves into the medical field.

However, to make it through the tougher disciplines of surgery or medicine, a woman had to have been born and raised without a thin skin. This is an attribute that happens to be an admirable quality in either gender; and works very well to help anyone succeed in life. That is unless it was the whip and the belt as opposed to loving discipline creating that tough hide.

Whips and belts create bitches, bastards, and psychos. Tough love creates successfully inspired over-achievers.

I had the opportunity to run into a few excellent female residents who can best be described as being good old fashioned “tough cookies.”

One female resident who supervised my fourth-year rotation in cardiology had those necessary brass balls and the guts that Italians call “stendine.” She was extremely talented, with a penchant to dish back as much as she got it from the old guard misogynist Attending Physicians who constantly aspired to punish women physicians.

It reminded me of the egocentric male patriarch who takes it out on his wife and daughters because he is incapable himself of dealing with the emotional vacuum  of having to live without a son as his heir.

  • My glass is half empty. God only gives me only beautiful daughters.

These old farts wasted way too much time attempting to wear down these brilliant medical tomboys until they finally understood clearly; by realizing that women could actually do the job. The women were then accepted; although with more reluctant vitriol than what would have been applied to reinstating a prodigal son. This capitulation was always made however, with the sour after-taste equivalent of turning aside to spit out a piece of bitter fruit.

  • Well, she did fine managing that cardiac arrest. But I still think a woman’s place is in the home.

This Resident was not only very self-assuredly competent but also made it her mission to do her best to put some teeth into my ongoing medical Bar Mitzvah. She assigned me sit in the CCU every third night to watch heart rhythm monitors until I was eventually seeing the little green bleeps on the inside of my eyelids when I was finally allowed to go to sleep.

She said:

  • The only way you will learn arrhythmias is to watch every bloody beat until you see anything that looks abnormal, then correlate it as best you can with a reference book to see how close you can come to the truth. After that you can come and ask me if you are correct.

This was the extent of her advice:

  • Get out your EKG book. Figure them out for yourself. Print anything out that you are not sure of and we’ll go over them later. And try to make any clinical decisions you need without waking me up. The nurses will help you out.
  • So just what kinds of things should I call you for, then?
  • Cardiac arrests. Call me if they die. Absence of spontaneous breathing, no pulse and no blood pressure associated with ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation is not something you will have to tediously ponder.

When I eventually entered my Internship at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City there were two female senior residents who were also tough as nails and did not take any gaff or nonsense from anyone.

One in particular was a fairly rugged, unforgiving mentor. An underling had to demonstrate smarts to first get and then to stay on her good side; while flirtatious subterfuge was no substitute for not knowing the answer to any of her questions. She was not even gay, either, as was the failsafe explanation the rumor mills defaulted to when dealing with women who were all business while on the surface, yet seeming to have very little in the way of a social life.

No. She was not gay; not un-loved; not under socialized nor a grown-up wall flower, either, but only hard core dedicated to her work as she kept her personal or social life completely private.

One incident demonstrated her fearless ability to get down and dirty in the trenches. On this evening, a cardiac arrest victim was brought into the ED in a full resuscitative code scenario. He was probably DOA but all stops were being pulled out to save his life.  Regardless of prognosis, everyone gets the maximum benefit of the doubt, and every such scenario has something to offer as a teaching or learning experience.

It is the usually the job of the Resident to supervise and guide the therapy, while letting the nurses and subalterns handle the drudgework.

Doing closed chest CPR compressions happens to be a real drudge and something to be avoided unless circumstances force the doctor to have to do it himself. The chore usually defaults then to the nurses or the respiratory technicians, as the doctor is obviously preoccupied with the other more erudite aspects of running the code.

Most people in these situations do CPR from the side of the bed, which offers little mechanical advantage as the work vector is more laterally oriented than vertical; which makes it incredibly exhausting labor.

As this scene unfolded the female Resident could see that the nurse who was doing the chest compressions was getting exhausted, and so took in upon herself to pitch in as her relief while at the same time barking out all the orders required to keep the code in process.

  • Get outta my way. I’ll do that for a while.

Whereupon she jumped up on the gurney, straddled the patient and started pumping his chest with the added efficiency this position afforded as a mechanical advantage.

I had never seen anyone before or since in a hospital setting, do it this way.

She happened to be wearing a tight white, short mini-skirt and with her legs spread out over each side of the man’s torso, a good part of her crotch was nonchalantly but innocently exposed. Good thing she happened to be wearing underwear or the scenario would have really been quite surreal.

It was good for another reason too.

It happened that simultaneously, the Cardiology Fellow had passed a temporary pacemaker empirically into the subclavian vein without X-ray guidance. Then when he turned it on the patient’s right arm started to flail up and down at the paced rate of 70 flails per minute. And each time it flailed, the man’s fist would pound up and down inside the female Resident’s crotch.

As it turned out, the pacemaker wire had taken a wrong turn by snaking up into the carotid vein which juxtaposed it to the brain center that controls right arm function. The result was that each time it paced, it caused the man’s right forearm and hand to involuntarily contract.

Being completely nonplussed by the situation and immediately recognizing the problem, the Resident, in not so much as missing a beat shouted:

  • Get that goddamned thing out of the brain and put it into the heart.

After which she turned to me and said:

  • I’ve had sex a lot of different or sometimes very strange ways in my life. But this is the first time I ever got it being fisted by a dead guy.

I was sufficiently impressed by her composed demeanor, telling her later this was one sexual foreplay scenario that even the Kama Sutra would be hard pressed to match.

She said:

  • Yeah. Maybe. But from now on if nothing else, I think I’m going to stick to wearing pants.

Too bad, because she did have beautiful legs; which was the one thing for sure that made it a pleasure to go along with her on those mini-skirted medical rounds and guaranteed that we would always be alert and paying attention to whatever she said.



Completely surrounded by the Indians

© Photo

Hennepin County Medical Center

Medical School: The VA Hospital

A Few More Humiliations 

One of my first rotations in general medicine was at the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. In the 1970s the VA hospital system was more like an extended care facility or a hotel than an acute care institution. Hospital stays for a simple seizure evaluation could last for weeks or months.

The patients were required to wear green and white striped sear-sucker pajama robes, could smoke on the open wards, despite having emphysema, lung or throat cancer, while the ones who were not bed ridden would even take the elevators down to the cafeteria at mealtime.

One ridiculous scenario of note was the man who still smoked through his tracheotomy after having had his larynx removed for cigarette induced throat cancer; making him a true veteran of the cigarette wars as well as any other he may have fought.

Another one was the typical Irish drunk in alcohol withdrawal DTs, tied to the bed, with a bead sweated forehead, while swatting away at imaginary flies he had named after long lost friends.

  • Get offa me O’Donnell. Go to hell O’Doule. Go fuck yerself in the arse Father Ryan. Give us a little kiss there Mary Rose, ya trollop, ya whore

The place operated like any typical Federally subsidized bureaucratic waste project. Nothing could get done without excess paper work, repetitive requisitions, delays in responses, and the litany of more reasons not to do something that had to eventually be done anyway, than to just go ahead and do it. This was coupled with an endless shortage of even the most rudimentary medical supplies making it a good thing that no one was really that sick or they would have all been dead by the time their tests and consultations were done. 

The Resident I worked with was an exceptionally bright Indian at a time when there was considerable bias in the United States medical system against Foreign Medical Graduates (FMGs), as well as against women.

There was additional bias even against Americans who could not get into U.S. medical schools, who instead went to foreign schools; because these students never had the same credibility as those graduating from the U.S. schools.

FMGs also had to go through extra layers of testing called the Fifth Pathway, to be licensed, which were nothing more than creative barriers set up specifically to discourage these people from emigrating and working in the U.S. The paradox was that because our own schools were not graduating enough doctors to fill the needed residency programs, or because there were shortages in certain disciplines, we still needed FMGs. Usually they gravitated to non-teaching community hospitals, where they essentially functioned as warm bodies, but did not get the same level of vitally important training offered in academic hospitals.

Women were not treated any better. They were deemed as being weak, soft, unable to stand the rigors of training, too emotional and doubtful to ultimately make a career out of it because of their known susceptibility to want children and then to stay  home with their kids. Training female physicians was felt to be a waste of resources, and even after passing the initial hurdles, once entering their training programs, they would be singled out for abuse or treated like second-class citizens.

One particularly nasty physician in the Harvard system, who interviewed medical school candidates or applicants for internship, had a uniquely cruel way of sizing up the candidate.

He would turn up the heat in his office, no matter the season, then first ask the candidate to open a window he had previously nailed shut.

Any candidate who tried but failed, then either asked for a tool or told him he should get a maintenance man, would then qualify for being interviewed a second time. This poor person then of course sweated bullets throughout the ensuing inquisition while not even knowing he had already garnered a preliminary pass by his first response.

Anyone who lost his temper at failing to get the window open would not be interviewed and asked to leave, while anyone who cried, to which the women candidates were particularly prone, would be told they should leave medicine altogether and look for another career.

Anyone who immediately went to another window and opened it was accepted without further interviews.

This technique reminded me of one used by a premarital counselor who would take the affianced couple out to the woods, where she then asked them to cut down a small tree with a band saw. The way they worked together was all she needed to know to predict the long-term success of the marriage; then advise them whether or not to take their vows.

She related one improbable scenario in which the female partner sat down and demanded that the man work the two-person saw by himself. I think that was my ex-wife; being evaluated for her second marriage.

However, this Indian resident was neither soft, nor weak, nor emotional, nor lazy, nor stupid, nor poorly trained, nor any other bigoted epithet one could conger.  He was bright, industrious, a hard taskmaster who took the time to get me through some rudimentary skill sets as well as a jump start on the road to developing sound fundamental work habits.

Even writing orders was an embarrassment when on my first try he read them while scornfully deriding:

  • And so. Vill your patient starve to death? You did not even write an order for his diet. Or do you think he cannot eat and needs some IV fluids instead; and if so what vill that be?
  • Oh. You have to take care of that, too? Patients need food and water?

We were expected to arrive early and to stay late, whereas on other rotations we worked banker’s hours. We also learned in short order that there was no excuse for not knowing our patients in intimate detail and to be immediately up to date on their current test results. In addition, we salon had to do a tremendous amount of scut-work, which included the likes of making, staining, and microscopically looking at blood slides as well as collecting, spinning and analyzing urine samples or other unmentionable body fluids, solids and semi-solids

It was quicker to do it on the floor than in the VA lab, often being information we needed to know on a timely basis to expedite therapies. In today’s modern hospital labs these results are accurately turned around in minutes by a technician.

One day on rounds, when I was not up to speed on some test results or a specialty consult had not been done, my Resident taught me the hard lesson that I was ultimately in charge of the case, that the patient’s life and destiny was in my hands, and that if I did not know something or if something had not been done that I only had myself to blame.

Knowing how inefficiently slow the system operated, he told me from that day on if I needed a result or if I needed a specialist that I should go to the department in question, to make such a pest of myself that anyone involved would hate the very sight of me. After that, my charts were complete and consultants saw my patients as a priority.

Still being a shy, standoffish person, I gradually came to learn that face to face or direct personal contact is the most efficient as well as the most courteous way to communicate, that it not only helped future networking, but after all was also not even the least bit painful.

This Resident also expected me to know anything and everything about the primary or secondary disease entities of all my patients.

On one occasion when I failed to answer a question about cirrhosis he told me I was “refractory to education” and should consider becoming a plumber.

  • You vill fail as a doctor. All your patients vill die. You vill be a curse on the house of medicine and a blight vhich anyvere you may go.

I wanted to cry.

He then told me to read the text section on any disease I was involved in treating, tested me on it the next day and did not stop there by adding the afterthought that texts are out of date the day they go to print; such that the only way to really keep up was to read the journals.

He gave me a pile of that year’s American Journal of Medicine and told me get a subscription after I was done reading them.

  • Only that vay vill you always be on the cutting edge. 

Interestingly, in the hallowed halls of academia there was a permeating bias against Indians. They were never seen in the upscale training programs.

At Columbia Presbyterian, the Cardiology director at one time privately admitted that he made two piles of applications for Fellowship: One pile for the Indians; and one pile for “all the others.” The Indian’s applications were then swept into the trash bin.

Some people also sniggered at the Indian custom of wearing a small Avatar dot in the middle of the forehead by parroting a possible socially acceptable answer to the query:

  • So, what does that little dot in the middle of your forehead mean anyway?
  • Oh, sir. In my religion, it means that every day is Ash Vednesday

I felt otherwise, because it was early in my career as a third-year medical student that the inspirational foundation for my future work ethic was laid down by one of those Indian pariahs, who while making the best of his lot in life, was making mine miserable in his role as the medical Master Sergeant in a second-rate VA hospital in Jamaica Plain.

When I eventually sold my practice, it was to a mixed cultural group, half of whom were Indians that were individuals I had worked with side by side for years and whom I always held in the highest regard.

Subscribing to the Hindu faith, it was somewhat of a shock for me to discover that they did not drink alcohol, they did not go to parties, they shunned bars, usually did not ever dance, were extremely family oriented and were very devoted to their children as well as to their patients. Education of the next generation was a number one priority.

They were also equally if not more knowledgeable than I was and generally worked their butts off with very few, if any, complaints about their workloads.

It was also an insight into my own indifferent bias to not even know anything in general about the Hindu religion, even though I had learned about its history and tenets in college. I thought it was simply a polytheistic concept hinged upon reincarnation, cosmic cycles, and portrayed by strange looking multi-armed gods who looked more like an octopus than a real person.

I did not know, for example that Hindus have a litany of holidays that include the following:

  • A celebration of the triumph of good over evil
  • A festival of lights
  • A celebration of renewing family ties
  • A celebration of exchanging personal gifts
  • A habit of giving excess bounty to the poor
  • A celebration of sweeping out the old and bringing in the new


Odd thing is it not, how it sounds vaguely like Christianity or Judaism.


Hindu greeting card


Source: Hindu Cards for Holidays