“What keeps us in our place is embarrassment.”
I think of myself as being shy and reserved. If you meet me socially for the first time I’m very likely to say little; I prefer to listen to what you have to tell me. Therefore it has surprised me that over the years people have looked to me when positions of leadership are open.
It started in summer school at Casis Elementary in Austin, Texas. My mother enrolled at UT in the masters of education program. She had nowhere to leave me during the day. Casis offered a remedial program for children who had not done well during the school year; maybe they had missed a lot of school due to illness, or their parents traveled a lot, or they were slow to grasp some concepts. I was deposited in their midst. My vocabulary consisted of at best twenty English words, so the slow pace of learning was considered appropriate.
I knew nobody. To my surprise, I was elected class president the second day of school. I had no duties; the post was strictly ceremonial. But I still don’t understand what got into these kids. The same process repeated itself through all of my education. Any time there was the need to communicate with the teacher or the principal, I was chosen among those to be front and center. In college there was student council, and the art movie group, and I was an instigator for many parties. Once I went into private practice my peers elected me to several leadership positions. It must be that people get used to thinking of me in those terms; like when tall people are asked if they play basketball.
I was chief of medicine at Christian Hospital when De Paul Hospital offered me a new job as chairman of the medical group. A great honor, except for the fact that the medical group consisted of two doctors. There were five docs in my practice, so in one fell swoop we almost quadrupled the group size. It was my job to quadruple it again.
I had to recruit twenty docs; we set a deadline of one year to get this done. I had a very busy practice and I knew nothing about personnel issues (what we now call HR). I was not told how much money was available to me; health care institutions rarely share those numbers with doctors. An administrator was assigned to help me. She had been told that she’d be the one to make the final decisions. I was the doc everyone trusted. The display window at the department store. Once I convinced a doctor to come to dinner with me, she was the one with the power to open the purse strings.
I did not know this. Flush with the excitement generated by my newly found mission I got on the phone to explain my new job to my friends. Once they agreed to talk I gave her the names. I was surprised when she turned down some of my choices. Again, I did not know that hospitals have exquisitely detailed statistics on how busy doctors are; where their patients come from; what kind of insurance they carry. I was looking for good docs who were respected. The hospital wanted fairly good docs who were busy and whose patients had good insurance.
She approved of my first choices. Two young, dynamic, smart doctors who had a large patient following. She called them to schedule a dinner.
Where are we taking them?
She mentioned a franchise restaurant. Not my favorite place. It’s usually busy and loud. Profound smell of garlic everywhere.
Why there? I thought we wanted to impress them.
She ignored my remarks.
The dinner day soon arrived. I was very excited. I saw the opportunity to have a group of thirty docs committed to excellence and service. We’d have the resources to acquire the best technology. We would exhaustively train the employees. It was all good, even if I had to deal with this obnoxious woman.
We sat down to dinner. I gave my speech about the mission; the ideals; the great future. I promised that I’d be involved and present whenever they needed it. Now it was her turn to talk about money and personnel issues.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I make the decisions. You deal with me.”
I was sick. Maybe it was the garlic; it doesn’t agree with me. I had an urgent need to run to the bathroom. I was also quite a bit angry; a very unfamiliar emotion for me.
I stormed into the rest room. I opened a toilet stall and rushed in. Then I realized that there was something unusual about this bathroom. It took me a few seconds to figure it out.
There were no urinals in here.
At first I attributed this anomaly to the restaurant chain. Maybe this is the way they did their bathrooms. Then I thought some more. Then I heard female voices walk into the room.
The quintessential “Oh crap” moment.
I had to think fast. There was no lid over my toilet stall. I still had my clothes on. I thought about standing on the seat, but then my head would have shown over the top of the stall. I heard the door of the stall next to mine open. I quickly sat on the seat and raised my knees up to my chest. While I tried with all my might not to sink into the toilet.
These women were talking even while they were venting their bodily needs. I remained in the same position for what seemed like a very long time. Once they washed their hands I waited for a minute, then bolted out of the stall and carefully opened the bathroom door, as if it would have made any difference had there been another woman coming in. I went back to the table, excused myself, and went home. I did not finish my meal.
The doctors did not agree to join the group. Small surprise. The administrator blamed it on some flimsy personnel issue.
I did not have to deal with her much longer. She was fired. Apparently I was not the only one that she treated with disdain. They gave her a year’s severance pain. For being a witch.
I’ve often thought about embarrassment, and what a powerful emotion it can be. When you care about what people think of you. There are so many people who cannot speak in public, or take an oral test, or shudder when they have to apply for a new job. Are we born this way? Is it training?
I have this “thing” about being a doctor. I pay my taxes in full and on time; I don’t speed on the highway; I have nightmares about bad publicity.
Then there are people who think nothing of being profanely drunk at the ball park.
Shouldn’t all of us care?