“Hey! You look like Doogie Howser!”
This delightful little bon mot was, for many years, a source of seemingly-constant amusement to a great many of my patients/their parents. For those of you who weren’t watching television between 1989 and 1993, this clever witticism was a reference to the title character of a show about a boy genius who graduated from medical school and became a practicing physician at age 14, played by a very young Neil Patrick Harris.
It was a silly show.
As you might have surmised, the reasons I was treated to this droll observation on a repeated basis were: 1) I was a doctor, and 2) I was very young, and looked even younger. I went to a combined six-year BA/MD program right out of high school, and was one of the youngest members of my class. And I’ve always looked young for my age. Hence, the Doogie Howser references, over and over and over.
At first, they were mildly amusing. Then they got irritating. And then they got really really irritating.
Snappishness not being a highly-prized quality in a pediatrician, I coped with this annoying phenomenon by smiling a tight little smile and saying something like “The first Doogie Howser reference is free. I add a dollar to your copay for any others.” (I would totally have done it, too, if I thought I could have gotten away with it.) And life moved on.
As time has gone by and my knuckles have whitened with their grip on the waning years of my thirties, the references have dropped off. But I still get the occasional question from a parent meeting me for the first time — “How old are you?” I now find the question rather charming, like when I get carded to buy beer. I usually ask how old they think I am, and anyone who shaves five years or more off my actual age gets a pre-signed blank prescription slip with my compliments. (Confidential to my friends at the DEA: I jest.)
But still! Having a somewhat elfin appearance has been an impediment of sorts to being taken seriously on occasion. When the frivolous complaint was filed against my license several years back, the angry parent described me at one point as “this KID!” This is, in part, why I use my title when introducing myself to parents I’m meeting for the first time in my office. And it has affected the way I present myself a little bit, too.
Back in the day, I got my ear pierced. And then I got it pierced again. That was about as transgressive as I got re: challenging heterosexist gender norms, other than slapping a rainbow sticker on my car for about six months after I came out. I wore the earrings through medical school, residency and my fellowship.
And then it was time for me to be a real-live pediatrician in a real-live office, with slightly different expectations. Furthermore, I had moved from New York City (where a double-pierced ear is roughly as transgressive as rainbow sprinkles on one’s soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone) to join a practice in rural-ish Maine. Presuming (correctly) that families there might skew more conservative than in Manhattan, I stopped wearing the earrings.
Every so often I still wear them, just for fun. On one occasion I wore them to an informal office party for my new job, at which point the office manager remarked on them and asked why I didn’t wear them at the office. I mulled the question. After all, my current practice is in the Boston metro area, and I’m the Adolescent Specialist here. Maybe the earrings would say “Yes, Young People. I may be over 30, but I am still hip and free-thinking and worthy of your confidence!”
The earrings have stayed out. Partly because the Better Half makes no bones about his feelings that they are a little bit juvenile and attention-seeking. (He may be right about that, but don’t tell him I said so.) But mainly, I asked myself why I would want to make my job just a little bit harder for the sake of some little frippery in my ear. Given how important being taken seriously is in my profession, why would I give skeptical parents a reason to take me a little less seriously?
So that’s week’s question — what could you get away with, but don’t? What teensy indiscretions have you done without because prudence advised it? What giddiness have you put on the shelf, perhaps to look at from time to time but not to really indulge in any longer?