Docs and their socks

Two weeks into my third year psychiatry clerkship at the University of Rochester, I was summoned to the Dean’s Office to meet with Dr. Orbison.

J. Lowell Orbison, MD  was a serious academician and an intimidating figure. A summons to his office was rarely a good thing for a medical student, and this was no exception. It had come to his attention, he said in that slow and sepulchral voice I knew so well from pathology lectures, that my socks didn’t match.

“Match what?” I asked.

“Each other,” he said with obviously strained patience. He leaned forward and looked around the edge of his ancient desk and gestured for me to pull up my pant legs. And there they were. Two mismatched socks. One, a light yellow casual, and the other a dark black and red argyle . Not just mismatched, but from non-overlapping universes. 

“And?” he asked.

I explained that I had stopped sorting socks while in college. I just put all my clean socks in my sock drawer, and grabbed two randomly every morning. It saved time, I explained, and money.


“Sure. I never have to throw out an orphaned sock because it has no match, only to find the match - now itself orphaned - two weeks later.”

There was a long pause during which he sat and stared at my socks. After that long and uncomfortable silence, he looked up, held my eyes the same way he did in pathology class when he first asked a question and then looked around the room, serially locking his gaze with one student after another, making as many of us squirm as possible before deciding whom to name as his victim. Then the ultimatum.

“This is a medical school, not a carnival. You are learning to be a physician, not a clown. Your childish display is upsetting the patients on the psychiatry unit. If you want to continue here, you will need to dress like a professional. Don’t let this happen again.”

The choice between harlequin socks and a medical career was easy. I went to Sears that same day and laid in a supply of dark blue dress socks. Interestingly, he was right that medical student attire had an impact on the patients: when I was participating in a group counseling session on the psychiatry ward the next day, I was asked by several patients why my socks matched. I told them. And the attending psychiatrist who had raised the issue was never willing to discuss it with me.


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