Career Path

What’s in a Name? Or a Title?

Recent events including “retirement” and a successful run for the Georgia state Senate have caused me to think about my various names and titles. Although married professional women frequently have name decisions to make, all of us are identified as “Doctor”. How much of our personhood is wrapped up in that professional title as well as other titles accumulated along the way? Some of us are Clinical Instructors, Professors, Presidents or Chairs. For women, the maiden vs. married name also comes into play.

My recent campaign pointed this out in a very personal way. Born a Kirkpatrick, a Scottish surname with a long history that my family has traced back to the times of Robert the Bruce, I met and married an emergency doc, Dr. Tom Haltom, at the end of my training over 30 years ago. I wanted to maintain my maiden name for various reasons (moving to a new city, paperwork/diplomas in my maiden name, etc). Tom said that if I didn’t want to change my name, he would change his. As a Southern girl, I couldn’t get comfortable with that plan. The compromise was that I would change my name legally to Kay Kirkpatrick Haltom, but I would practice as Dr. Kirkpatrick. This seemed like a workable solution although it led to frequent name confusion in my personal life at the church, dry cleaner, etc. as well as some unspoken questions about our marital status. When our kids were born we retained Kirkpatrick as an extra middle name for both of them. Over the years people have generally referred to me as simply “Doctor K”. Although cumbersome, this plan was mostly acceptable until I decided to retire and almost immediately decided to run for office.

For political purposes, my consultant recommended that I run as Kirkpatrick due to name recognition in my professional role. This required changing my voter registration so that it would match the ballot. One of my 7 opponents, another physician and member of my own party, quickly began attacking my name change with mail, radio and TV as a way to “hide” previous political donations. He also filed a legal challenge to the name change with the county and state elections boards in hopes of getting me disqualified. The election board threw out the complaint in under 5 minutes but the legal fees were over $10,000. When this situation arose, I first thought it was a joke but it ended up being serious and a big distraction.

I ultimately won the election and the latest dilemmas include: 1) How can I maintain my identity as a doc now that I am retired and also a Senator? 2) Should I be called Senator or Doctor?

These and other confusing issues will sort themselves out but retiring docs and professional women may have similar confusion. The supernumerary titles and names have led to a very interesting year. This situation has been food for thought about what makes us who we are and the contribution of our names and titles to our overall identities. By the way, y’all can just call me Kay.

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Kay Kirkpatrick is currently a Georgia state Senator, retired from private practice in Atlanta, Georgia with Resurgens Orthopaedics. She is also involved with patient safety initiatives and teaching TeamSTEPPS. When she is not at work, she likes to do dog therapy with her golden doodle, play golf, and watch Stanford football. She also enjoys spending time at her country place in northwest Alabama.

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