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Be a Man Project - Greg Lam

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

Be a Man

A portrait project redefining masculinity for today and tomorrow.

Greg Lam

Recently we’ve seen lots of images of mostly-bearded men wearing tactical gear, carrying guns and waving flags. In manifesting their inner Rambo, they are figuratively and literally screaming, “This is what it is to be a man!” To a lesser degree, it reminds me of my former football coaches who, when wanting us to dominate an opponent, chided us to “be a man.”

Those notions didn’t make sense to me back then, nor do the hyper-masculine connotations connect with me now. For me, being a man is not about intimidation or winning, but rather the little things that make up character and integrity.

One event that still resonates with me today happened decades ago when I was a Cardiology Fellow at the Duke University Medical Center. Back then, we prided ourselves in being “Duke Marines,” those physicians who took care of the sickest patients, typically working over 100-hours-per-week while neglecting their families and friends. For our sacrifice we were idolized in the hospital – what we said was the law. It was paternalistic, but that was how things were done back then.

One night while I was on call in the Cardiac Care Unit, I had the rare opportunity to lie down after things quieted down in the early hours of the morning. I crawled onto the cot in the small call room and it seemed like I had just closed my eyes for a second when my pager went off, summoning me to morning rounds. As the group of doctors, nurses, social workers and students gathered, Sarah, the nurse for the first patient, started to give her report.

“Mrs. Smith went into ventricular tachycardia last night and became hypotensive. As per Dr. Lam’s orders, I gave 150 of amiodarone and she eventually converted back to normal sinus rhythm.”

I looked up from my papers with a surprised look. “I didn’t give that order,” I said.

Sarah looked at me in shock. “Yes, yes you did! I woke you up when you were sleeping and you gave me the order.” The group started to stir. It was unusual for a nurse to question a Cardiology Fellow. Surely, Sarah made a mistake.

“No . . . I don’t remember that. But she’s doing fine now,” I said. “It's not a big deal. Let’s move on.”

For the rest of rounds I didn’t think much of that incident, but as I left the floor after rounds something was nagging at me. Was I aggravated at Sarah for challenging what I said, or was I bothered by the fact that I could have been wrong? In the recesses of my memory, I vaguely remembered the door to the call room creaking open with a sliver of light piercing the darkness. A hazy head poked through and said something to me, to which I mumbled something incoherent in return.

And I realized what had happened. But what should I do? The easiest thing would be to simply not say anything and let the issue die. After all, to me it wasn’t a big deal and everything turned out okay with the patient. But when I considered the situation from Sarah’s point of view. . .

I immediately turned around and headed back to CCU where I found Sarah huddled with her charge nurse.

“Hey Sarah, you were right. I did give that order for amiodarone for Mrs. Smith. I just didn’t remember since I was dead asleep when you woke me up. Sorry for contradicting you in front of everyone. I was wrong.” I saw a wave relief wash over Sarah, and her eyes started to well with tears. I left the unit, assuming that was the end of the issue.

The next day as I returned to the CCU for morning rounds, a couple of the nurses approached me. “We heard what you did yesterday. Thank you so much for owning up to that. Right when you apologized to Sarah, she was being reprimanded for giving a medicine that you said you didn’t order. She could’ve lost her job. It was her word against yours, and the charge nurse wouldn’t have bothered to question you. It's not often that a Duke Marine admits a mistake, but this time it made all the difference.”

I often think back to that incident with Sarah because it showed me the importance of honesty and admitting your mistakes. It reminds me to have integrity in everything you do. And it prompts me to consider a situation from the other person’s point of view and not just my own.

Honesty. Integrity. Empathy. To me, that’s what it means to “be a man.” More than outward shows of strength, being a man is having the inner strength of character to always do what’s right.