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.