For a moment I looked at her in a state of complete confusion. Do I speak English? I work here! I thought. My mind raced through why this woman was speaking to me as if I were both deaf and uncomprehending. I don't even LOOK like I come from a Spanish-speaking country - or do I? I've always thought I was too Asian-looking to be mistaken for Latin American, though I've seen some Latin Americans that I've actually mistaken for Filipino, so I suppose the lady wasn't way off-base.
Anyway, we got that sorted out, but it made me realize how easy it is to fail the Rorschach tests we get all the time in day-to-day life.
Making assumptions is human nature and often a necessary part of arriving at some kind of understanding of a person or situation. Assumptions fill in the gaps. It's a well-known phenomenon that, given part or parts of a particular recognizable whole, the human brain fills in details so as to create for itself something it can perceive and interpret. I think that among our faults and failings as human beings, making some wrong assumptions is one of the most understandable, and perhaps one of the most insidious.
The one example I'll never forget of a doctor making assumptions about a patient - and getting the "inkblot" all wrong, because yes, there was a right answer and a wrong answer - also concerns a patient who was a native speaker of Spanish. I will call him Juan de la Cruz, in honor of the great Spanish mystic.
I was a resident assigned to provide anesthesia for Juan de la Cruz. I won't say what type of surgery he was about to have, but I will say that it was a somewhat unusual procedure, one you don't see every day in the O.R. I'll call it the Calvary Procedure, not because it involved a lot of suffering, but because the name reminds me of something in the procedure.
As I was looking over Juan's chart I noticed under the heading "Social History" something like this, after a description of his smoking and drinking habits and marital status: was a physician in his native country; currently works as a building custodian.
My heart ached to learn this, but I had a more practical problem at hand: should I address him by his earned title, "Dr.," and take the risk of dredging up a possibly painful past or of sounding insincere, or call him "Mr.," and take the risk of sounding condescending or disrespectful?
I don't remember how I handled the conversation. I remember our preop conversation only the way one remembers a hazy dream just at the edge of being forgotten. My memory cuts to the O.R., then, after I've induced general anesthesia for Juan, and someone asks me to say the final procedure verification out loud. I say, "This is Dr. Juan de la Cruz for a Calvary Procedure."
The attending surgeon was a woman with an Eastern European name but the accent and affectations of someone whose illustrious parents had sent her to study at Oxford or Cambridge. She was smug and imperious, and she turned to me with a look of annoyance when I said this. "He's not a doctor, he's a JANITOR."
I was a resident, but I wasn't her resident. I looked into her eyes and said, "He may be a janitor now, but he was a physician in his own country."
The lady surgeon appeared irate and protested again at the idea that Juan should be anything other than a janitor. Then she added, "He never told me that. Where are you getting this information?""
"From the chart," I said somewhat curtly. I wanted to ask if she'd even bothered to read it. Her tone and arrogant air and faux British accent were getting to me.
"Well," she muttered. "Goodness knows what it means to be a 'physician' in his country."
That pretty much killed the conversation in the O.R. for a while.
I knew I was supposed to learn something, a bunch of things, from the interaction, and I chewed on that exchange for a long while. One thing I needed to work on was to avoid letting snobby people get to me. But the more important lesson, I think, was again a lesson about human worth: how we judge others, the assumptions we make (or fail to make) about the stories that underlie human faces and circumstances, if and how we even see our fellow human beings.
We're surrounded by inkblots, texts, stories, mysteries. Someone please remind me every day to make the effort to read, and to practice good reading - the lectio divina of life.