It’s just over five years now since I swapped GP work for a simple, menial job, so I could focus on writing. Around the same time, I started a new volunteer role. I also ended fifteen years of karate training to learn yoga instead.
What was this like, all this change at once? Actually, it was rough. I felt anxious, I worried whether I’d made the right decisions. I lost weight without meaning to. Everything I did was unfamiliar—exercise, work, volunteering, writing. There was no place I felt I had expertise. I kept going, and gradually acquired a few skills. But it was a big adjustment, being a beginner in my forties. I also felt the drop in ‘status’ in the eyes of others.
I was treated very differently by surgeons in my new job as a surgical assistant. Several spoke to me rudely, with sarcasm, or with disdain. A few yelled. Some were polite but cool. Only occasionally was I greeted with real warmth, or treated in a truly friendly manner. Even now, working mostly with the same (pleasant) surgeons, I have the occasional job with a new surgeon where I am treated as if I’m some kind of moron. It was a huge change from being an established medical practitioner, with staff and patients who treated me well. My pride was shot down.
Though it hurt, it did me good. I have a better idea of how it feels for others with nasty bosses. And I’ve learnt to ground my sense of self-worth inside me more, rather than looking to others for validation.
Almost worse than the snarky surgeons, though, was something else new—invisibility. In the hospital where I now volunteer, I was amazed how many doctors ‘blanked’ me. Many don’t make eye contact, let alone smile or say hi. Cleaning staff say hello, and nurses greet me by name. If I dressed in a blouse and skirt, with a stethoscope around my neck, would the medicos acknowledge me? I watch them greet other doctors, so I reckon they would.
Perhaps these doctors’ minds are elsewhere, maybe they don’t realise their rudeness, but I tend to think they classify me, in my blue volunteer vest, as a ‘non-person’. I find this fascinating, and yes, being a doctor myself (though these doctors don’t know that), I suspect I’m more sensitive to the way they don’t ‘see’ me. (My pride may be battered but it’s obviously alive and well!) But also, like anyone, I dislike being walked past in a quiet corridor as if I don’t exist.
Maybe I did the same thing to people when I was a hospital doctor. I hope I didn’t, but it’s entirely possible. If so, I’m trying to make up for it. In everyday life, I’m making eye contact more, smiling more. I’m initiating brief chats in different situations, trying to make sure the people I come across feel ‘seen’. Because I know what it feels like to be ‘unseen’, and how that bites.
My recent experiences have been insignificant compared to what other workers endure. But they’ve made me examine my own behaviour. And they’ve taught me to appreciate active kindness, one person really engaging with another. How that attention makes someone else feel valued. And how uplifting that really is.