Medical Gumbo

Medical Thoughts Seasoned With a Bit of Everything
APRIL 24, 2012 11:31AM

How I Gave Up and Accepted the Pocket Protector

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About a month ago, I had an accident at work. I put one of my gel pens in my lab coat pocket without placing the cap on properly. The pen leaked and ruined the coat and the dress shirt underneath.

Pens and I have a very uneasy relationship. Most people don't realize that doctors, especially those who don't do surgery, write for a living. In the hospital, almost everything I do with a patient involves writing. I write daily notes, I write orders, I sign papers, I fill out forms, I complete death certificates. I write more than I do any other single thing, except talk to patients and possibly talk on the telephone. Since I spend so much time writing, my pen is important to me.

You don't spend 3-4 hours a day using an instrument without developing some very specific preferences. Because I am left handed, I prefer fast-drying ink, the smudge-proof kind. My pens also need to flow very easily, so I can make bold and legible lines in patients' records without wearing my wrist out with bearing down. I am restricted to black or blue-black ink, since most hospitals require it for legal purposes. Sometimes my records will be faxed and photocopied, and occasionally the copies will be copied and the faxes faxed, so clarity is an important matter.

For a long time I preferred retractable pens, but I found that too often I would absentmindedly replace the pens in my breast pocket without retracting them. I have a row of lab coats in my bedroom closet with little black dots on the bottom of the front pocket that prove I am indeed absentminded. To address this problem, I switched to capped pens. My initial resistance to capped pens was that my pens come in and out of my pocket thirty times or more over the course of a day, and capping and recapping a pen would be too difficult. The flip side is that I have to think about the cap every time I replace the pen in the pocket, which takes me out of my absentminded state and forces me to mind the pens. This is the classic psychological trick of making something slightly harder so it commands the attention necessary to get the job done properly. A little like putting the alarm clock across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off.

The cap gambit worked. For a long time, I was replacing the cap each time the pen went into the pocket. Until last month, when I forgot.

That put me back to square one. Retractable pens didn't work. Capped pens didn't work. That left the dreaded pocket protector.

Pocket protectors, as it turns out, are almost impossible to find. In fact, the only place I was able to find them was on-line at Amazon. Unfortunately, pocket protectors have such a strong association with computer geeks and clueless science majors that even computer geeks and science majors don't want them any longer. But they work. They are a simple, though inelegant solution to my problem of staining shirts and lab coats with ink. I'm not exactly thrilled with the idea of purchasing them, but in the last accident I lost a $40 lab coat and an $80 shirt. That is a ridiculous cost for the benefit of using my favorite $2 pen. Hopefully they won't look too bad. I have the option, since the lab coats have a side pocket, of stashing the pocket protector on the side and keeping the pens there instead of in my breast pocket where the pocket protector will be seen.

Incidentally, when you put a pocket protector in your cart on the Amazon website, do you know what Amazon suggests you also consider buying, based on what other people bought with their pocket protectors? A pair of Buddy Holly style eyeglass frames, a hat with a propeller on top, a "Nerd Herd" novelty ID tag, rainbow suspenders, and clip on bow ties.

Somebody needs to tell Amazon I already wear bow ties. And frown on the clip-on kind. I have standards, dammit.

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