18 June 2007

Professional Courtesy

I drive too fast. It’s a bad habit I have, and I am unapologetic about it. At least I could say that until recently, I had never bent sheet metal. (And that event occurred at less than ten miles per hour!) As a result, I have had many opportunities to discuss the various nuances of the traffic statues with law enforcement authorities by the roadside. One of the perks of my profession is that the police tend to take a lenient view of my infractions, especially if I was traveling to or from work. We work together a lot in the ER, and that does buy you some license (deserved or not). For example, we see a lot of patients brought in by the police for a “pre-incarceration medical screening exam,” or what the nurses call an “okey-dokey for the pokey.” And we make sure to give them special service – in and out, no waiting.

So I was pretty chapped not too long ago when I actually got a speeding ticket. I was tired and not paying attention after working a night shift, but I can’t complain – it was 76 in a 60. The conversation went like this:

“Hi, I’m Trooper Jones with the State Patrol. Do you know how fast you were going?”
“Well, sir, I’m not sure there’s a right answer to that question.”
(Taking in my scrubs and stethoscope around my neck) “Are you going to work?”
“No, sir, I’m on my way home. I was the overnight doctor in the ER at The Big Hospital.”
“Ah, I see. May I have your license and registration?”

And so on. I was annoyed, but busted fair and square.

But then, two days later, around midnight, who should come into The Big Hospital with an “OK to book” but Trooper Jones! I saw him and said hi; he didn’t recognize me at first. “Remember?” I prompted, “Saturday morning on the trestle, 76 in a 60?” His face went white. He remembered.

But I am a consummate professional, and also not a complete dickhead, so I was resolved to get the trooper back out on the street ASAP. Also, I wanted to get my revenge by being extra nice and service-oriented, to make the cop feel guilty for ticketing me. But I was busy with a couple of actually sick patients, so I ordered an x-ray on the prisoner and made a mental note to get back to them shortly. As it happened, my partner (we are double-covered overnight) signed up for the patient in the interim, so I figured I was off the hook. Oh well.

Three hours later, I walked past the room and noticed the trooper sitting there with a forlorn look.

“What on Earth are you still doing here?” I asked, stunned.
“I don’t know,” replied the trooper. “They came and took an x-ray and never came back.”

I went to my partner. “Bill, what are you doing with the trooper in room 8? He’s been waiting forever!”
“What trooper?” Says he. “There was one in room 7, hours ago, but they left.”
“No, Bill, they’re in 8, and still waiting!”
“Oh, shit!”

So Bill rectifies his error and gets them promptly discharged, belatedly. On his way out, the trooper approaches a nurse he knew socially: “Did I have to wait three hours because I gave that doctor a speeding ticket?” She explained what he really happened, and I am glad, because I would not have wanted him to think I was so petty and vindictive.

But I am glad he got to sit and think about it for a couple of hours…


  1. Hi,

    I came across your fascinating blog while Googling the term "widow maker" for my blog. I'm writing about yesterday's funeral for a neighbor who died of throat and lung cancer. I actually saw this guy smoking during the period of time he was having chemo and radiation. "Get a clue" doesn't quite cover it. Anyway, now I'm hooked on your blog. Thanks for giving me another distraction from my novel-in-progress.

    Word verification= ewrmhymn. Meaning: Bad singing in church.

  2. If I was that cop, it would be a fact that you made me wait because I gave you a speeding ticket. And when fellow cops challenged me, I would say, "Look, he mentioned the ticket as soon as I came in, then he made sure I realized that he knew I was still there three hours later. Sure, he acted concerned like it was a mistake, but whatever, he could only be so brazen about it."

    Now, as for what that does to the medical immunity against speeding tickets enjoyed by you and your colleagues, I'm not sure. It might help.

  3. Tena,

    Thanks for stopping by.


    You are of course right, but there's really nothing I can do about it. Really the end result is the same -- the cop got an object lesson on why it's a good idea for the police and ER docs to be nice to one another.



  4. I thought that part of being a doctor was that you are supposed to set an example to the lower orders, and certainly not abuse your power in such a nonchalant manner?

    Clearly, I was wrong.

    Congratulations on being lucky enough to not have a major accident so far. I'm sure if you are involved in such an incident at some future date the judge will go easy on you so you can get back to your ER.

  5. Anon,

    I don't know who you have me confused with -- Charles Barkley or someone like that, but I'm no role model to any lower class. I'm just a dude with a car that has more horsepower than is reasonable. I've always driven too fast -- the only difference now is that I (sometimes) get let off because the cops know who I am. That's hardly an abuse of power (maybe an indiscretion on the cops' part but that's for their conscience to deal with).

    In the long run, if driving too fast winds up being my worst failing as a person, I think I can live with that.

    Thanks for sharing.


  6. Of course I am obliged to point out in this give and take relationship, you are breaking the law when he gives you a break, but he is not breaking the law by bringing a suspect in for an exam.


  7. I once got a ticket for speeding, 47 in a 35 mph zone, on Christmas Eve while driving to the hospital to start my shift. It was a 4 lane road with little traffic. I was in my scrubs and the officer knew who I was from previous encounters with each other in the ED. I had always accomodated him in the past by getting him out quickly. But he was a stickler for the rule and gave me a ticket anyway. "You're not on an ambulance with lights and sirens, doc!"

    Later that evening, he showed up in my ED with a patient for routine medical clearance before jail lockup. It was not my intention to make him wait 8 1/2 hours, only 3 or so...but due to unforeseen circumstances, the CT scanner burned that night, he was given no love by all the ED staffs from nurses, to secretary, to security guards, to techs. Even Sister Mary Mildred the nun/patient liaison gave him grief for giving me a ticket.

    He said to everyone, "I know what y'all doin'. I get pay on the clock regardless if I sit here or out there. Less work for me in here. Warmer in here, too."

    Needless to say, we didn't share our holiday cheers with him.

  8. the cop got an object lesson on why it's a good idea for the police and ER docs to be nice to one another.

    It was not my intention to make him wait 8 1/2 hours, only 3 or so

    This is odd to me. As a middle-aged white guy, I've received plenty of breaks that those outside my demographic group do not receive. Ditto when I used to walk around in a military uniform. I never objected to getting them. But, I can't imagine being miffed for not getting special treatment.

    I don't think it's the end of the world if cops to give you all a pass now and then for belonging to the club, but I mean, you guys do get paid to work in these emergency rooms, right? You are not actually going in to the hospital as an act of selfless charity to benefit your fellow man.

    I think it is probably okay if you have to follow traffic laws.

  9. Jim & Matt,

    You are right of course, and that is why I do not complain when I did receive a ticket -- it's fair.

    BUT, there is something of a two-way street in our relationship with the police. We both exercise discretion to a limited degree, motivated solely out of professional courtesy.

    You see, a patient with a non-urgent complaint presenting to my ER during peak hours really should expect to wait three hours to be seen. That's because I am seeing the sicker patients first -- the chest pains and abdominal pains and headaches and strokes. But, for a number of reasons, I break the rules, let the cops skip the line, and get them in and out ASAP, even when the patient's condition did not entitle them to be seen out of order.

    Similarly, the cops have discretion who they do & don't issue citations to. I've been let off by cops who didn't know I was an ER doc (or before I was one). Maybe it was because I was polite, had a good record, was white -- I don't know. But the point is that the cops also have latitude in deciding who gets a ticket.

    So the only irritation here when the reciprocity is interrupted -- if I make an effort to treat them well, but similar consideration is not extended to me, it feels like the relationship is not symmetric. A cop who had to wait after letting a doc off the hook might feel the same. But I've never seen a cop complain about having to wait, nor have I ever complained (to a cop) about getting a ticket I deserved. (In fact, I sometimes feel just a little abashed at the stuff they let me off for -- they often take the courtesy too far.)

    And again, note that my intent was to be *extra* nice to the trooper -- both to extract my passive-aggressive revenge, but also to build up good karma for the next time. It didn't work out -- oh well.


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