Letters After My Name… An introduction.

Twenty-six letters makes up the English alphabet.  From those letters, we form words, sentences, and messages.  Letters have meaning.  They allow us to communicate (You just read this, right?).  They torture us with their rules (“‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C.'”).  When joined together and associated with one’s name, though, they seem to convey greater and sometimes misleading messages.  While it would be easy to get lost in a Seinfeld-esque (“‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘S’ apparently) way in terms of how letters modify one’s name (Ms. versus Mrs.; Judge versus “Your Honor,” etc.), one’s analysis should really be focused on the story and not the titles decorating a name.

When an upperclassman threaded my medical school white coat (a shorter version of an Attending Physician’s white coat) onto my arms and I took the Oath of Hippocrates publicly for the first time, a friend summarily commented that it would be difficult for me to have my name properly embroidered on my coat when I was one day granted an “MD” because others schools had previously conferred a “BA,” a “JD” and an “MBA.”  This concern was quickly diluted by the myriad things that I had to worry about as married, oldest-in-my-class, practicing lawyer, first-year medical student.

After my daughter’s safe arrival, something on one of the white coats that briefly entered my wife’s labor room made me consider the physician’s white coat that I believed would one day hang both in my closet and on my shoulders.  It was at that sleepless, overjoyed, and relieved moment that I realized I wanted at least one white coat that said, “Benjamin S. Albert, MD, JD, MBA, DAD.”  I knew that the “DAD” part represented the most important title with which I have ever been blessed, and I also knew from a practical point, it would be a good discussion point for breaking the ice with a nervous patient.

Letters after one’s name – whether “Jr.” or “Ph.D.” – can inform.  But, they fail to tell a story.  If a university grants a degree, does it say the recipient did well?  Hardly.  If someone shares their name with their great-grandfather, grandfather, and father and a “IV” is adhered to the end of their surname, does this suggest love among generations or simply ego?  Similarly, if one has a JD after their name (or, inappropriately, “Esquire”), does it mean that they will zealously advocate for you or that they have the skills to be your lawyer?  Definitely not.  A number of people complete the requirements for a graduate degree without ever gaining the skills to successfully do the associated job.  I have often observed (and sparred with lawyers who proved my view) that a baboon (no offense to any baboons reading or to baboons, generally) can get through law school.  It doesn’t mean that they’ll be a good lawyer.

More concerning is that there are a number of stories that are not being told because the absence of letters after one’s name suggests that the experiences never happened.  What if, for example, you managed to complete your prerequisites for medical school, actually get accepted into medical school, and then because fate intervened in a negative way, the long sought-after “MD” is never bestowed?  That’s what happened to me, and I can assure you that my decision to withdraw from medical school did not take away the patient’s lives that I helped save, the unique experience of dissecting every inch of the human body, the gifts of trust and confidence given to me by patients and their families, the privilege that I had helping patients complete their life’s journey, the helicopter rescue missions, the suturing and stapling of wounded skin, the nurturing of broken hearts, or the fact that for almost four years, I did wear a white coat.  And a stethoscope.  And most importantly, a promise – Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s promise – that:  “Here, at whatever hour you come, you will find light and help and human kindness”.

No one can take away the lessons that I have learned, the experiences that I have had or the gifts of friendship and love that patients gave to me during this chapter of my life.  And maybe, if you keep reading, I can share some of those experiences and some of the lessons that came directly and indirectly from patients and caregivers.  It is not just about the letters after my name….  It is about all the stories that make me who I am.

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10 Responses to Letters After My Name… An introduction.

  1. Robyn Fortier (Jill's mom) says:

    Hi Benjamin….wow, you are a gifted writer! I read two books about intern year this summer so I could understand what Jill is going through, and I am hungry for more! Keep writing, you are very interesting and I’m sure all your med school experiences, and life experiences, will make for a great book! Robyn

  2. Holly Shuman says:

    …and a gifted writer too? You never cease to amaze & inspire me. I look forward to future entries.

  3. H Brian Dumeer, JD says:

    That is some of the best writing I have ever read. Very well done! You are an amazing person who should be proud of his accomishments no matter if you are “awarded” letters at the end of your name or not. As you are aware your most important titles are dad, husband, son and friend.

    Keep writing!

  4. Shira says:

    This is an inspiring start! Keep going, I know you’ve got many more stories to share…

  5. Jill Dumeer, M.D. says:

    As a new physician, I am so thrilled that you are sharing your experiences over the last few years with the world. When white coats were first bestowed upon us four years ago, you were unique amongst our classmates in that you left an illustrious career behind and made the costly decision to return to the world of textbooks, student loans, and exams with the most genuine of motives- to use your exquisite sense of humanity and compassion to help others. I can think of no one more fitting to share the tender moments of medical school- from cutting the umbilical cord of a newborn baby to holding a patients’ hand as they pass from this world, and everything in between. I am eagerly awaiting your next post!

  6. Patti D Albert says:

    I’ll never tire of your written words. I love you, BSA.

  7. Genevieve Lattimer says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking! Can’t wait to read more…

    One of these days when we are chatting I’d like to know the error in using “Esquire.” Never knew it was inappropriate! Learned something new today!

  8. Eric says:

    Great stuff. Welcome to the blogosphere.

  9. Ezinna says:

    Benjamin,
    Thank you for sharing. As I have gotten to know you, I have admired your ability to express thought and action. Please continue to write.

  10. I couldn’t agree with you more but it is what it is. Those letters carry weight because they do give some kind of glimpse as to what a person knows and has experienced.

    The key is for someone without letters not to be intimidated and have the confidence to realize that the letters on some level are just what you say- letters and nothing more. Thanks so much for your thoughts- I hope lots of people have a chance to read it.

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