The other day I heard a story about a women in her nineties who was receiving palliative care.
This woman, it was told, “had never before insisted on ceremony.”
She was not the kind of person who would have had her academic credentials in her Twitter handle.
She did not ordinarily expect anyone to use her professional titles.
However, for the first time in her life, when she was receiving care much later in life, she asked to be called “Doctor.”
She was a not a medical doctor, but she had earned a doctorate in some other subject.
And the reason why she wanted to be called “Doctor” only now was because she intuited that it would make a difference for how she would be treated and the kind of care she would receive.
This is a common and striking phenomenon and reminds me of this story about Dr. Harvey Chochinov:
When Chochinov was a young psychiatrist working with the dying, he had a powerful experience with one of the patients he was trying to counsel — a man with an inoperable brain tumor.
“One of the last times that I went into his room to meet with him, on his bedside table was a photograph of him when he had indeed been young and healthy and a bodybuilder, and it was this incredible juxtaposition of these two images,” says Chochinov.
So in the bed there’s his patient — this skeleton of a man — very pale and weak. On the bedside table, there’s this portrait of a glistening, muscled giant. And Chochinov says that sitting there, it was very clear to him that by placing this photograph in such a prominent position, the man was sending a message: This was how he needed to be seen.
It was the same for the woman who asked to be called “Doctor.” In doing so, she was expressing how she needed to be seen – as someone deserving of respect, regard, and reverence.