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What do you do: A dialectic fable

March 27, 2009

This is the closest I will get, hopefully, to the public debate on what we call ourselves. I’m not a fan of the conversation, but the dialog below was an itch in my brain I had to scratch. I’m always surprised by people in our field taking an either/or black-and-white approach to things like definitions. As I hope the dialog below shows, the labels aren’t so much labels as they are convenient signposts pointing to ever-increasing areas of specificity without precluding any other.

These days, one of the ways I meet new people is through the playgroup my son goes to. Sarah (my wife) will make a connection with another mother, and then we invite the family to hang out. In this slightly fictionalized dialog, I meet Lizzie and Mark, who have two sons. Their elder son John and my son Harry are in playgroup together. (Names have been changed.)

The scene: Sarah and Lizzie sit in the living room watching the boys play while Mark and I hang out in the kitchen as I’m preparing brunch.

Dan: Hey, Mark, it’s nice to meet you.

Mark: Nice to meet you, too.

D: So, what do you do?

M: I’m a doctor.

D: Cool. If it’s DC, you’re either a doctor or a lawyer, am I right?? (Slight look of regret on Mark’s face.) So… «ahem» where do you work?

M: I’m up at NIH. (NIH = National Institutes of Health, a government organization responsible for conducting medical research. Based in Bethesda, where I live, it’s a major employer in our area.)

D: So, you’re a researcher?

M: Yeah, but I also spend a lot of time at Suburban. (Suburban = local hospital across the road from NIH.)

D: You do clinical work, too?

M: Well, at NIH we just get the weird cases, but at Suburban, in the clinic, I can get a broader range of patients.

D: That makes sense.

M: I’m a cardiologist, so we want to look at hearts with a range of conditions.

D: (Regretting putting so much butter in the french toast I’m making.) No kidding.

M: Yeah, so we end up going to Suburban. They benefit because they get the imaging equipment we’re working on and we benefit because we get exposure to a wider range of patients.

D: Imaging equipment?

M: That’s kinda what I do. I look at different ways to visualize the heart as a means for diagnosing conditions.

D: That’s really cool.

M: Yeah, I had no idea this where I would end up, but that’s how these things work, don’t they?

D: Tell me about it.

M: So. What do you do?

D: Brunch is ready!

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