Wednesday, April 01, 2009

the one true pen

Someone recently asked me (and I'm going to paraphrase here) why doctors all seem to have such a hard-on for that One Perfect Pen. Well, I'll tell you. Short answer: we're nerds. Long answer: the more junior a doctor is (I'm going to include med students in this generalization too, because it applies to them as well) the more time they spend scrawling endless notes and lists and orders that, with rare exception, no one will pay much attention to. Yet the amount of time spent writing is seemingly endless. So what do you do? Much the same as we spend much time and thought into finding that perfect pair of shoes with which to endlessly pace the halls while on call (Sneakers? Crocs? Dansko clogs? Some sort of sneaker-shoe hybrid?), we need to find that One Perfect Pen to make the work a little less painful, less tedious, and in some cases, to even bring a little happiness into our sad, small lives.

When I am writing a note with a nice pen, it makes the writing go faster, it makes my handwriting look nicer, and it actually does lift my spirits. I don't write nearly as much as I had to when I was a resident (when I was an intern in particular, the importance of the One Perfect Pen hit its zenith) but I still do have to write consults and notes and especially orders every day, and while I could get this job done with just about any writing implement, I do like to have me a nice pen.

When I was a third and fourth-year medical student, I had a brief flirtation with the Dr. Grip. Unclear at this point now whether I just thought it was cool to have a pen that was called "Dr." while I myself was not one yet, but it was your standard refillable gel pen, available in a variety of clear plastic barrels (this was the era of the clamshell candy-colored iMac), and it made a nice line. However, time was not kind to the Dr. Grip pen, as it got dropped and lost and stolen (people always need to borrow a pen for "just one second" and end up pocketing the thing *, though I'd like to think more out of habit than malice), and given its relatively hefty price tag (more than $6 PER PEN, my god) it eventually gave way to its cheaper and more disposable brethren.
My intern year in Pediatrics, I loved the Pilot P-500, which was this needle-tipped gel pen that wrote smoothly and produced a beautiful fine line, which allowed me to write very tiny yet legibly. This was important because as a Peds intern, a ridiculous amount of my time was spent updating these "signout sheets," basically these multiply Xeroxed grids for each patient listing their names, medical record numbers, medical problems, meds, and all recent hospital events dating back to their date of admission. Basically, it was a running portable chart for each kid that we would tote around and pass off to each other, from the overnight call team back to the day team and so on. Do you need to write, "J-tube feeds held, vanc and Flagyl added, stool cultures pending, social work contacted for home care" very, very tiny in a itty bitty box the size of a postage stamp? Get you the P-500, friend! I loved this pen.

When I decided not to be a Peds resident anymore and my days of making teeny tiny check boxes were a thing of the past (well, except for my ICU months while in Anesthesia residency--but still, nothing rivaled the number of teeny tiny check boxes on a general Peds inpatient service) I switched to my current love, probably the love of many of you pen nerds out there, the Pilot G2.

I think I read somewhere (perhaps from Pilot's own propaganda, if it can be trusted) that this is the world's most popular gel pen. (I can believe believe it's the most popular in America, but the world--really? Have you seen the pens they have in Asia? Those are some office pen-loving people there, boy. Maybe it's not my fault that I'm this way--it's a biological imperative, written into my genome.) Well anyway, the G2 is a great pen, writes smooth, feels good in the hand, and thought it's a little pricier than some, you can still get a box of a dozen for less than $20. Unfortunately, it does have this unfortunate habit of skipping and leaking ink from the tip after blunt impact, just as I seem to have an unfortunate habit of dropping my pens, so I've killed quite a few that way. Nothing like a big blob of black ink bleeding through the front of your scrub top to shake your patient's confidence. Yes, I look like a mess, but please, TRUST ME WITH YOUR LIFE NOW.

As those on my Twitter stream probably know all too well, I just bought some new pens on sale, the Bic Velocity with a 0.7mm tip in black. They were on sale, two dozen for less than $20, and I'd tried it out before, found it acceptable enough, so figured what the hell.

People, I cannot even tell you with a straight face just how much time I've spent thinking about this pen. First I thought about buying it. Then I fantasized about writing with it. Then I waited and waited (and waited! For THREE WHOLE DAYS!) for the pens to arrive. Then I took them to work and labelled them. Then I wrote with them. Then I looked at them in the light. In the shade. Turned them upside down. Considered them. Compared them to other pens. Tried to figure out if I liked them more or less than the G2. (Less.) Tried to quantify how much less I liked them than the G2. (35% less.) Tried to figure out if I should just stick it out or get more new pens. And then I noticed that everyone around me had died of boredom, because dude, STOP TALKING ABOUT YOUR DAMN PENS ALREADY.

So anyway, why do doctors have such a boner for That One Perfect Pen? Back to the first, shorter answer, which is probably all you needed to know in the first place. We're nerds. Or at least I am.

* This reminds me: after one too many pen thefts, I started to use a strategy called "The Decoy Pen," later renamed "The Sacrificial Pen." Basically, I'd have in my pocket a number of pens, mostly of my preferred brand, but one really cheap stick pen that I, like, got free from the bank. So if someone asked me to borrow a pen, I would give them the cheap one, and if they ended up walking off with it, no big deal. By all means, keep my ballpoint WalMart pen that I found on the floor of the second floor women's bathroom, YOU THIEF.


  1. Anonymous3:12 PM

    Try the Zebra Z-grips. They're ballpoint, so it'll go through carbon copy paper really well, but it writes smoothly like a gel pen. They're also pretty cheap, so it's not so bad if you "lend" it to someone and they "forget" to return it.

  2. Anonymous5:36 PM

    uniball signo. not sure if they have the same ones here in america - i always get my friends to buy them in bulk when they go to hong kong. my personal favourite! i am a fellow pen nerd, and an anesthesia resident to boot! love your blog by the way.