Prank: Hospital Pagings

In his third year of medical school, the informant, a medical doctor for nearly 50 years now, states that he learned the prank of calling the hospital operator to page (back when paging on the loudspeaker was the primary way to reach doctors, since there were no beepers or cell phones) made-up doctors, whose names were taken from a medical term (this could be “the name of a body substance, enzyme, secretion, or whatever”) or the name of a medical syndrome, which may or may not have been actually named after a real doctor who identified it. Three examples of doctors—supposedly, attending physicians—whom medical students might have paged in the hospital, given by the informant, include: “Dr. Billy Ruben” (after bilirubin, a product of bodily processes and bile pigment), “Dr. Kleinfelter” (from Kleinfelter Syndrome, and the doctor of the same name who first described it), and “Dr. Marfan” (again, from Marfan Syndrome, and the doctor who first described the ailment). In the page, these prank doctors “would be given a real place to call to, like ‘4 South’ .”

The informant claims this prank was “like a tradition” played and passed down by many of the older, 4th year, medical students to the 3rd medical students who were in the first year of their “clinical clerkship” (clinical exposure to patients), and less frequently by interns who were in their first year out of medical school. The prank would be played most often on weekend nights at the hospital when the medical students (or interns) were on call, since the pranksters “didn’t want the attending staff or faculty,” who were less likely to be present in the hospital at those times, “to hear the pages.” These pranks would thus really only be played when most of the people in the hospital were “people who really didn’t understand what was going on like weekend visitors, non-medical personnel, and perhaps nurses” though the informant states that the latter group “might know” that the pages were pranks. Finally, the informant stated that he thought these pranks “were very funny at that time like the other medical students.”

In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of this prank is that its effect does not at all depend on, nor would it necessarily be enhanced by, a moment of realization for those upon whom it is played. Presumably, if nobody in the hospital from the operator who is doing the actual paging to the casual weekend visitor or janitor ever understands that the “doctors” who are being paged actually don’t exist (or at least not as attending doctors of that specific hospital), the full effect of the prank seems to remain intact. Here, the division that is represented, as in many if not all pranks, is between those who have the prerequisite knowledge, which here is the medical knowledge possessed by the prank’s perpetrators, the medical students (the insiders), to understand that what is going on is actually a prank, and those who lack such knowledge (the outsiders) and accordingly are not aware that anything other than the normal business of the hospital is taking place.

This specific prank, however, seems to set itself apart in that those who understand the prank seem not to care whether, nor even wish, “the others” find-out that they have been duped. In this case, there doesn’t need to be any moment when the pranksters inform their targets that they have been pranked; rather, the satisfaction primarily consists in the fact that the medical students are more knowledgeable, at least in medical matters, than those who lack the same background (which may even be nurses, as the informant relates) and are able to delight in the expression of this specific kind of superiority (a superiority of knowledge) which is embodied in the prank, and more specifically, in nobody ever realizing that they are being pranked. These hospital pagings thus constitute a very specific form of prank, “codding,” where the prank serves the purpose of enforcing exclusivity and special knowledge in a community, which here is the hospital, and everybody inside of it at the time of the prank.