My friend Lois and I were talking on the phone the other day. We both graduated from diploma nursing schools in the early 60s. It was a time when the nurse was considered the “handmaiden” of the physician. We played the Doctor-Nurse Game* and even stood up when a doctor entered a room. Feeling powerless to confront their authority, not surprisingly, caused us to harbor much resentment towards the medical profession over our long nursing careers.
I told Lois that my volunteer work at a local hospital has exposed me to the improved interactions between nurses and physicians. Of course, having more female physicians has leveled the playing field somewhat and the emphasis on “team” encourages the professionals to respect and work together to care for the patient. I have fresh insight into the challenges physicians face in the health care delivery system that restrict their practice and autonomy. While I do feel more sympathetic toward physicians, I cannot forget the unbalanced relationship nurses once endured.
One afternoon while making rounds, I dashed in to see, Mr. Barnes, my last patient, in 236-1, the triple ward next to the nurses’ station. He smiled when he saw me. “I’m going out for dinner tonight. Dr. Jericho is picking me up at five.”
“Oh? I didn’t know. He didn’t tell us at the desk,” I said, scanning his Kardex card in the vertical file positioned on my left arm. “I’ll check on it.”
Back at the nurses’ station, I checked the doctor’s order sheet for Mr. Barnes. Hospital policy dictated that patients could leave hospital grounds only with written orders from their attending physician. Dr. Jericho was not the attending physician; he was a personal friend. And there was no written order.
I faced a potential explosion. Dr. Jericho’s capacity to be short-tempered was well-known to the nursing staff. We’d each had our experiences. None of us liked it, but we felt powerless to do anymore than endure. And I didn’t need the problem right then: I wanted to give report on time and get home on time, once.
I dialed his office. “Hello, Dr. Jericho, this is Mrs. Roelofs on Hall Two. Your friend, Joseph Barnes, told me you were picking him up for dinner.” I swallowed hard and took a breath. “I see no written order covering this leave. I’m calling to see if you’ve run this by his attending, Dr. Acorn.”
He barked into my eardrum. “I don’t need to check anything out with anybody. Do you hear me? It’s none of your business….who is this again? What’s your name?”
“Mrs. Roelofs. Head nurse. Hall Two.” I forced my voice to sound strong.
“I’m coming right over to clean your clock,” Dr. Jericho yelled into the phone.
My head and heart spun wildly into one big tuft of fear that settled in my throat. I raced to a friend working on the ward at the other end of my floor. We schemed to hide me on that ward when Dr. Jericho arrived. Then we stationed lookout nurses. Minutes later I got the message. I ducked into Room 214, a five-bed room on East, and hid behind curtains drawn around a vacant bed. When Dr. Jericho arrived, my cohorts told him I was off the floor on an errand. He strode into my nurses’ station across from Room 201, parked himself on my desk chair, and bellowed, “I’ll wait.”
When I was a student nurse a few years before, I had scrubbed to assist Dr. Jericho in surgery. He became irritated with something and kicked a metal wastebasket across the room. Anesthesia saved the patient from being startled off the operating table. However, my nerves, as a novice, vibrated with the intensity of the metal clanging against steel and tile. Now my nerves were vibrating once again.
Suddenly, my friend peeked around the curtain, wearing worry on her face. “He won’t leave until he sees you. He’s camped out. Slicked back hair, black suit, green paisley tie, and all. You better come.”
I returned to the utility room on my ward with its steel cabinets, stowed commodes and IV poles, soaking instruments and thermometers, and corner hopper – a large square toilet-like bowl for rinsing bedpans. Standing in the doorway to the adjacent nurses’ station, I said as confidently as possible, “Dr. Jericho, I’m back. I understand you want to see me?”
Dr. Jericho launched to a standing position. “You bet I do. Who do you think you are to question what I’m doing? To tell me I need a doctor’s order to take my friend out for dinner?” His words torpedoed through the nurses’ station and up the ramp to pediatrics.
He stomped toward me. I backed away, inch-by-inch, until I was flush with the hopper. One more step and I’d plop into hopper water. I was trapped. Only the smothering smells of disinfectant separated us. “It’s my responsibility to see that hospital policy is followed, sir,” I said. My breath stopped momentarily.
“Who are you to tell me what hospital policy says? You, young lady, are never to question me again. Do you understand?”
His words slapped my face like sleet on a winter walk. I could have punched him – he was close enough – but I thought better of it. “Yes, sir.” I held back a salute that he seemed to demand. He turned, clicked his heels, and marched out, as if on a military drill.
My meds nurse, LPN, and aides crowded into the small nurses’ station. “What happened? What’d he say? I’ve never seen him so mad. At least not this week.”
“Oh, the usual Dr. Jericho stuff. Nothing new.” I said, trying to sound nonchalant with a heart rate of over a hundred.
Reaching for the desk phone, I glanced at a list of phone numbers and dialed Mr. Barnes’ attending physician. He gave me the order. Why hadn’t I called him in the first place?
I determined never to let a doctor’s behavior intimidate me again.
Caring Lessons: A Nursing Professor’s Journey of Faith and Self, Lois Hoitenga Roelofs, 2012, pp 49-50
Mark Radcliffe, deputy features editor
BMJ. 2000 Apr 15; 320(7241): 1085.
“In the beginning the relationship between doctors and nurses was clear and simple. Doctors were superior. They had the hard knowledge that made ill people better. The nurses, usually women, were good but not necessarily very knowledgeable. They were in charge of folding pillowcases and mopping brows. . . .
In 1967 Dr Leonard Stein first outlined the doctor-nurse game. He said that the interactions between the two were carefully managed so as not to disturb the fixed hierarchy. Nurses were bold, had initiative, and were responsible for important recommendations. While being bold, however, they had to appear passive. In short, nurses were able to make recommendations as long as they made it look as if they were initiated by doctors. So the nurse was responsible for the wellbeing of her patients and the nourishment of the doctors’ sense of professional self.”