Dr. Joseph Sirven: The Doctor's Bag

By KJZZ News
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2020 - 10:46am

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Dr. Joseph Sirven
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Dr. Joseph Sirven

I was running late and realized that I had forgotten some of my neurological instruments. I ran back to grab my black bag that carries my instruments and my patient gasped. The patient’s family member surprisingly started humming that creepy theme from the movie The Exorcist, “Tubular Bells,” and said, “What are you going to do with that?” 

“All neurologists have this bag” I explained.

“What are you talking about? That’s only for exorcists!” the patient said.

I smiled and realized that they were both joking with me as I tried to explain that doctors carry bags. To which the patient said, “I have never seen that before in my life.”

My patient’s reaction got me thinking; do doctors still carry medical bags?

The medical bag dates back to the 19th century when physicians practiced primarily in-house calls immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting “The Doctor and the Doll.” In fact a doctor without their bag was rendered useless. The bag was practical. It carried equipment, bandages, whatever one needed.

As physicians began to work out of offices or clinics and patients were not seen in their homes, the rationale for the black bag was eliminated. As the 21st century rolls around, the black bag still exists but mostly as a practical matter for just certain specialists — and neurology is one of them.

I’ve proudly carried a black bag since medical school, when it was loaded with lots of important items for my work in a charity hospital in New Orleans. It had my cheat cards with dosing of common medications — had pocket sized reference books, prescription pads — and I considered it my lifesaver. I have carried it ever since.

I can’t imagine not having a bag, yet in an informal survey of my non-neurology colleagues, most denied having one and more commented to me that they thought the medical bags are now museum relics. Currently, there is no research to reflect this opinion.

I now realize that except for my own, the doctor’s bag is a casualty of modern medicine, replaced by the cell phone — the new medical apparatus of our time.

So if you see your doctor with a black bag, there’s no need to be frightened. My patient wasn’t completely wrong about the bag in the exorcist movie — it’s just that I don’t use holy water for the ailments I am trying to cast out!

Dr. Joseph Sirven is a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic.

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