Imagine you’re at Starbucks. You’re halfway through a co-worker’s order (“half sweet, no foam, saffron-scented, opium-spritzed, …”) when two men wearing coveralls come in. You hear them talking about a car they’re fixing. Their garb has grease on it, various stains of indeterminate origin. They saunter up to the till, place their orders, and get their drinks before you because the trainee taking care of your order is running to the Starbucks across the street to find more panda blood for your co-worker’s beverage. Tapping your foot impatiently, you notice that the two guys in coveralls have parked themselves in what was your favorite spot, but now is a seat that you will avoid like the plague given that there will undoubtedly be oil stains on the cushion.

Okay – now replace this scenario with health care workers wearing their scrubs or lab coats out in public.

What the hell are these people thinking?

I am loath to be the high horse guy because I’ve cut corners too. I can be sloppy as Joe. But this is just so incredibly thoughtless that it just screams to be railed against. God only knows what kind of work these people do. Can you imagine if someone from a level 3 lab was pulling this stunt? I would hope that people working with that level would have more sense – and it’s likely that they do – but we can’t know for sure when we see that white coat out in public, can we? I mentioned that grease stains would make me avoid a befouled seat like the plague. In the case of the public lab coaters who take up residence in my coffee shop, I might be avoiding those seats so I won’t catch the Plague.

“Why would people do this?” I ask myself. (I actually have time to contemplate this while I’m still at Starbucks: even though the trainee did find some panda blood, that Love Potion Number 9 is proving hard to- track down.) My current theory is status. People wear the lab coat out of the lab because it says “I am important”. The whole thing smacks of the fresh new doctor who actually comes to a research lecture with his or her stethoscope draped over their shoulders, as if to say: “Yes, I am a doctor. I have the ability to SAVE LIVES. I have ANSWERS. I have come directly from a patient’s bedside to nod thoughtfully while this person discusses their data.”

Dude, as long you washed your hands and you shut off your pager, we won’t point and snicker.

I wonder if someone would suggest that lab coats are not removed because of time constraints. I will grant you that people might have to zip between two spots – say the clinic and the lab – and maybe there simply isn’t time to switch the coat. Okay. The coat might even be their only lab coat and they need it in two different locations. Fine. I’d even accept that it was really cold outside and the lab coat was kept on simply to stave off the elements while running from building to building.

But on a coffee break? Are you serious?

What ultimately slays me is that the cafeteria area back at the lab or hospital where the offending lab coater comes from almost certainly has a “no lab coats” policy. That means that the lab coater abides by a code that says that white coats may not be worn at the point of snack consumption, but that they may be worn at the point of snack purchase.

Don’t shit where you eat, but feel free to shit at the grocer’s.

What a wonderful piece of non-lunacy.

Anyways, here’s my advice: if you see someone wearing a lab coat or scrubs at a coffee shop and it pisses you off, ask them what kind of work they do. Act really interested. Let them tell you what kind of dreaded disease they are about to cure or what kind of dangerous samples they bravely handle each day.

Then ask them what sort of protection is required to do those experiments or interact with those particular patients.

The ensuing uncomfortableness will help you forget that the trainee spilled your co-worker’s drink on his boss and that it’ll be nightfall before you get back to work.

(Originally published on November 6th, 2005)