This is the actual door of the first- floor ladies’ room at Boston’s Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.
We’ve got a lot going on. In addition to our normally nuts two-working-parents-two-kids lives, we’ve had several other crisis- level family issues. And in the midst of all that, I’m attending a highly anticipated annual conference for doctor- writers, held at a very fancy downtown hotel. 

Thursday, the first morning of the conference, I scooted out of a talk to use the ladies’ room. As I entered, a woman was just drying her hands, about to exit. I could see her name tag, and though I didn’t catch the name, I saw the credentials: M.D.  We exchanged polite smiles and I walked past her to the stalls. The only other person in the room was a female custodian  in classic maids’ dress, mopping the marble floor. 

I had just closed my stall door and was mid-doing-my-business when I heard a banging, and then exclamations and cursing. 

Then, a woman’s voice yelling “How do you get out? Hello, how do you get out?”

The voice was clearly from the doctor I had seen on my way in. I wasn’t sure what was going on, or if the question was directed at me, or even how to respond if it was. 

The voice became demanding. “Seriously, how do you get out? Excuse me, excuse me! How do you get out of here?”

Just when I was thinking I’d need to abort mission and try to help her, there was a surprised shuffling and response from the lady with the mop: “Yes, the door, right over there, see?”

“But it won’t open, it’s stuck,” declared the woman. 

The cleaning lady muttered something in a guttural foreign language. Through the space under the door I saw her faded-white compression stocking legs pass by with the  unmistakeable waddle of advanced hip osteoarthritis. 

“See, ma’am, here, it open like this,” and there was a door squeak. Then the only sound for a few long seconds was the indistinct murmur of multiple voices from the hotel lobby. 

Then, a curt “Oh. I see. It PULLS open.” The voice was one of exasperation. The doctor then apparently bustled out, without a thank you. The cleaning lady ambled stiffly back to her bucket, mumbling something that was probably not complimentary. 

Yes, I had a good personal chuckle at the expense of the “trapped” woman. But I’ve thought about that exchange a lot since then. 

Who was she? How could someone who is presumably (I would like to think) intelligent and educated make such an obvious error, not realize it, and then be so rude? Was this a truly character- revealing event? Or could there be an explanation for this decidedly unflattering behavior?

Here’s what I think: I hypothesize that the woman was a surgeon. 

Anyone who has rotated through surgery knows that all O.R. doors swing out. This is basic: before anyone sets foot inside the operating theater, they must scrub. This is a complicated and critical requisite. It involves skin- scalding industrial- strength antibacterial soap and disposable plastic bristle brushes being used over all upper extremity appendage surfaces (up to the elbow) for some minimum of brush strokes. Once complete, the hands may touch NOTHING or the entire process must be repeated. 

Well I remember as a medical student the hawk- eyed scrub nurses who lived for spying novice trainees accidentally TOUCH something after having scrubbed in. They would announce (always loud enough for your supervising attending to hear) “YOU BROKE STERILITY! Go scrub in again.” 

And we would slink back to the sinks. I don’t think I imagined the quiet cackling behind my back, every time. 

Back to the ladies’ room: the surgeon had just washed her hands. She’s expecting the door to swing OUT. She also may have just arrived in Boston. Maybe she fled her busy practice post- call and took a red-eye into town. When the door doesn’t budge, her operating-room-programmed and exhausted brain Just. Cannot. Compute. 

Her demeanor? If she’s been successful, she must have been competing with men. Surgery still is a very male-dominated field. If it had been me stuck at the door, my call for assistance would have been meek. My How do you get out would have been framed as a cautious question, then peppered with thank you’s and apologies. Does that make her demanding tone and ungrateful exit okay? No, but it lends an empathetic explanation. 

And haven’t we all been there? Pushing at the pull door, so focused on our own expectations and immediate needs that we simply could not SEE what was so obvious, nor interact appropriately on even the most basic level with our fellow humans? 

I have. Life is full of these push/ pull moments. Stress and fatigue bring out the worst in all of us. 

The take-home message is far more than a funny story: When you’re pushing as hard as you can and not getting anywhere, it’s time to step back, re- evaluate, and ask for help.