The night was quiet until I washed my hair. Then of course the phone went off. I beat Dr. Mark to the ER, and went to say hi to the patient, a pretty teenage girl who had somehow dislocated her jaw while doing nothing at all. After a couple milligrams of Versed, she seemed pretty sleepy, and Dr. Mark easily manipulated her mandible back into place. She smiled and opened her mouth to say thank you; Dr. Mark gasped, and her mother screamed – and the mandible fell right out of place again. To be sure, it went back fairly easily too, but it was obvious that the problem was not completely fixed. Dr. Mark wrapped her head up with ACE bandages till she looked like something out of “The Mummy,” because nothing else would stay on her beautiful smooth hair. Now she has to go to school for several days looking like that. I couldn’t help smiling at the way she looked – which was horrible, of course, because she knew she looked like a Halloween costume, and I wasn’t helping. I tried to make a conversation about her career plans, which made her smile and talk – opening her mouth, which she wasn’t supposed to do. Tsk, Alice, get a straight face!

While we stood around waiting for another patient to be put in a room for us, I made the mistake of admitting to Dr. Mark that I have a stash of novels in my Palm Pilot. Unwise thing to tell the attending! He didn’t care, at least not right now, and we got into a discussion of Charlotte Yonge (whom I mainly keep in the PDA, because she’s semi-religious, so it’s not a total waste of time, and she’s Victorian, so out of copyright, and I don’t have to pay for the etexts).

Right now I’m on “Magnum Bonum: or, Mother Carey’s Brood,” which is about a girl who marries a doctor and has six children before he dies working in a typhoid epidemic in the London slums. He leaves her as a dying charge his secret experiments (nature unspecified), which he thinks will be a great boon to humanity, but which his colleagues think can never succeed. That’s just the first two chapters. The book follows the family as the mother tries to raise the children and prepare at least one of them to take up their father’s great work. The catch is that, unlike him, she doesn’t really know God, and so is unable to give the children a good foundation. The eldest son becomes a lazy gentleman of leisure; the second becomes an atheistic scientist, too involved in natural science to care for medical problems; the third child is a girl, who overheard her father’s secret, and longs to succeed where her brothers are obviously failing. At one point she confronts her mother and demands permission to get medical training (1870s) and eventually take over her father’s notes. The mother, who has grown wiser over time, responds,

“My child, you do not know what you ask. Remember, I know more about it than only what you picked up on that morning. It is a matter he could not have made sure of without a succession of experiments very hard even for him, and certainly quite impossible for any woman. The exceeding difficulty and danger of the proof. . . My dear Janet, it is not a question of worthiness; it is not a thing a woman could work out.”

Now, I enjoy many aspects of Victorian social life; but this bit drives me crazy. Just like I never realized what segregation was like until I read books from the 1940s, and found flat references to “negroes,” where they were treated as kind of a homogeneous lump, nonentities, instead of individual characters; or what proximity to enemy air raids meant till I read Churchill’s description of their anticipation of German attacks at the beginning of the war; I can’t really grasp the idea of oppression of women, except in books like this. Even the oldest, crustiest surgeons I’ve met don’t say things like this. I don’t know whether they think it; but they don’t say it. I mean, I ask you: what about a scientific experiment could be beyond a woman’s powers? It’s not like an expedition to Africa or Mongolia were required, or any physical strength. The idea that a woman would not be able to follow a line of scientific reasoning, if she set her mind to it, simply floors me. Similarly, the way the women characters in these books get pushed around by the men, even when their plans are equally worthy, or even better thought-out; the men are the legal guardians and direct the property, and that’s the end of it. Maybe I need to be just a little bit more respectful of Gloria Steinem and her ilk. Or maybe just Elizabeth Blackworth (first woman doctor) and Susan Stanton.

Of course, Janet pursues her course regardless of her mother’s objections, and eventually steals her father’s notebooks. I’m not sure where the story goes after that, but I’m quite certain that it ends tragically for Janet.

It doesn’t help that one of the big ad blitzes in town these days features a billboard, which I have to drive past twice a day, with the slogan: “We can’t all be surgeons. [go do xyz instead]” Talk about a downer. I felt like it was talking directly to me. It took me three trips past it to grasp what it was really saying.

An Air Force friend was sharing stories about his days in the Air Force Academy, and then test pilot school. A lot of them centered on harassing the few women students, or scaring them with stunts that he insists wouldn’t have fazed the guys. He’s a real Southern gentleman, and I respect him; but he had no sympathy whatsoever for these women.

Tell me why I’m doing this, again? I agree with him that the women shouldn’t have been there. So why am I trying to get into a similar place?

I am as good as the guys; I am as smart; I can think as fast; I know as much; my hands are at least as good as theirs. That’s what I told myself during every interview day. Just because they’re taller, and stronger, and look more like a doctor than I do – that doesn’t mean anything.

Is that what this comes down to? A five-year contest to prove that that’s true? Because what I left out was: a cool head. That I don’t know about.

Jesus, maybe it would be better if I don’t match in surgery, if I have to scramble for an ob/gyn spot. But that’s one reason why I have to do it: to see if I can. I feel like I caught a rollercoaster ride, and it’s wild and scary, but I want to find out what the second half is like. Can’t let go now.

Can we skip to March 15?

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