Whether or not it happens on a reality show, being fired is not a pleasant experience. For me, it was painful enough that I considered not ever shopping at a Lowe’s ever again after I was fired. (I kept up that good fight for about 1 year.) It didn’t matter that working in the Lowe’s plumbing department was just intended to be a summer job between 1st and 2nd year of medical school. When they told me to not come back after my honeymoon (in part because my departmental boss didn’t think I was taking my Lowe’s career seriously), I felt betrayed.
During the entire process, I had been up front about being a medical student (my real career, which I was taking seriously) and that I would be getting married in the middle of the summer. They seemed to be on board with my limitations and I worked hard learning a subject I knew nothing about. But when I needed a few extra days off before the wedding to get some things done, apparently I wasn’t a team player nor was I Lowe’s material. And with that, I was fired.
Eventually I got over the anger and frustration of being fired. It wasn’t that long before I resumed shopping at Lowe’s and this became just a funny anecdote in my life’s journey. Unfortunately, this is was not the last time in my life that I was ever fired.
As a physician, being fired by a patient is usually a big deal. Typically, it is because you have done something so egregious that the family is unable to deal with seeing you. And while I pride myself on having a good bedside manner and communicating well with families, I have managed to be fired twice.
I still remember the first time that it happened. I walked on to the postpartum ward, past the nurses station preparing to start my day. The nurse manager took me aside and told me that the parents of one of the newborns on my service did not want me to be their doctor anymore. I was dumbfounded. What had I done? The baby had a mild physical abnormality and I spent a good deal of time the previous day discussing this with the family and what the plan was going to be moving forward.
So I asked the nurse if the family mentioned what had gone wrong. She said the dad mentioned that it was something about my having said that their child was not interesting enough. He was especially turned off by this and did not want to see me again. This explanation left me even more bewildered then when this discussion started. While this minor abnormality was of a somewhat sensitive nature, I thought I had done a particularly good job of being both delicate but also straight-forward.
I replayed the conversation over and over in my head. Never once did I mention that despite the child’s issue, I found him to be uninteresting. That just seemed beyond anything I would ever do. But then it hit me. I did use those exact words. It was at that moment that I realized how powerful words can be, especially in a sensitive situation.
I was trying to be as delicate as possible and not arouse more worry about the situation. I was trying to explain that if there had been additional findings in the child’s physical exam, then the situation would end up being “more interesting”. I was not passing judgement on whether or not their child’s situation was interesting. I was actually talking in code where “more interesting” actually meant scarier and a much bigger problem. “More interesting” was supposed to be safer. It clearly was not. I can see why they were upset. Words are powerful and I deserved the disappointment from the parents, especially the father.
There is a reason that one of the parts of being a physician is a focus on Lifelong Learning. While at various stages along the way, there are celebrations and handing over of certificates to symbolize that you have accomplished something, in the end the journey is never over. A physician needs to keep their eyes and ears open to all of the feedback around them and be willing to respond to the messages coming back at him or her. Sometimes it can be painful to look in that mirror and try to make changes. It can be easier to ignore and pretend that it is someone else’s issue and that you are doing just fine.
It’s is unlikely that you will go through your life or your career without being fired. And while it might seem like a horrible failure and a personal indictment, don’t let the shame get in the way of growth. Otherwise, this bad experience would be all for naught. For while no one should ever cause or be the recipient of such a break down in communication, they will happen. But not learning from the problem makes the experience makes the situation all the more painful, for this scenario was all for nothing.