Woman in Uniform

The new work trousers my wife Claudia ordered from America arrived today. We’ve both enjoyed her trying them out this evening. They are well-made, with good strong pockets. Her phone fits tightly enough in a pocket on the side of her thigh so that it won’t fall out. These pants, which are probably intended for rock-climbers, even have darts at the knees for bending and climbing, part of her role as ambulance driver. She gets bruises where the ambulance stretcher bumps against her thighs. I had suggested that she could get some leg protectors like the ones the back-stops in baseball or cricket wear, but she thinks that might be over the top. Claudia also bought a webbed belt so that her usual belt of aqua-coloured crocodile skin doesn’t get worn out. The new webbed nylon belt would make an excellent tourniquet. God forbid we ever have to use it that way.

As a doctor, I can dress up a bit at work and I sometimes do. I have a few classic doctor’s dresses I bought on sale in Macy’s at San Francisco before I headed to New York to speak at the United Nations last year. They are good enough for our clinic in the desert too. I wear my dusty bush boots to work (to spite the snakes and scorpions) and change into office flats in the clinic (as if the snakes and scorpions never come in there). At our remote clinic I can even wear scarves or necklaces. I especially enjoy wearing earrings everyday. These are forbidden in the hospital because there is always the possibility that a patient could pull them out of your ears or strangle you with something around your neck. I am less concerned about crazy people strangling me and more worried about earring-snatching bubbies. And I still wear closed-in shoes to protect my toes from a dropped scalpel or needle.

The nurses wear uniforms, which show them as hardworking and practical. They also have a great range of protective gear, carefully chosen and painfully negotiated with those who control the funds, which they wear when they go out in the ambulance. Reflective strips decorate overalls to protect them out on the road at night. We are never supposed to drive at night in this part of the world — no one should. The cattle stations are not fenced and it’s hard to see a bull on the road in the darkness.

Several years ago, Claudia and I were out for dinner one night with a friend who managed the local aged care facility. This excellent institution provided respite for families caring for disabled and frail aged people in the local Aboriginal community. As dinner was served our friend was interrupted by a phone call. It was one of her staff members, who’d been driving an elderly client back from a podiatry appointment 500kms away. She called to say that they would be late getting home. Driving close to sunset, they had hit a cow. The car was still drivable and they were unhurt, luckily. The old lady being taken home only had one regret. If they had a bigger car, they could have put the cow on the roof to bring it home and feed the family.

When I started work as a doctor, I would have liked a uniform. After more than a decade as a student, my wardrobe of carefully selected secondhand and seamstress-made clothes suddenly seemed a little shabby and altogether too quirky. I wished I had a set of practical shirts, like the nurses did, to wear everyday. Walking around in pyjama-style scrubs seemed pretentious (like wearing your stethoscope around your neck when you went to the coffee shop) and, especially if you actually did work in the emergency department or operating theatre, a bit disgusting in said coffee shop. My mother helped me to purchase a good basic working woman’s wardrobe from the chain stores. It was as much a uniform as anything the nurses or ancillary staff in the hospital wore: neutral colours in fabrics that didn’t crease.

Photo from Toronto, Canada, cropped from one by  Tim Gouw

Photo from Toronto, Canada, cropped from one by Tim Gouw

Even after I had my “uniform,” I pined for a leather hip belt like tradesmen have for their tools, or even a nylon webbed pouch like the nurses had for theirs — pens, torches, thermometers. I could have my otoscope and my sphygmomanometer on my hips with my ID and my little card showing normal blood pressure ranges. I spent a bit of time browsing the leather tool belts in hardware stores before a colleague persuaded me that it was probably a little odd for an apprentice doctor to want to look like an apprentice plumber. Perhaps even more pretentious than wearing your stethoscope around your neck all day. If I could have worn overalls then, I would have. I was looking for some individual expression at a time in my life when regimentation was at its peak. Funny that I thought a uniform could do that.

No surprise then, that the Remote Area Nurses green overalls with their reflective tape stripes, look cool to me. After more than a decade as a doctor, I am a little better at dressing like a woman who doesn’t have to get her hands dirty. Or at least one who puts on a paper apron and gloves to do so. But somewhere inside this lady there is still a yearning to pull on baggy denims and boots to go to work. I envy Claudia her rock-climbing trousers.