Being a doctor is hard, and I’m not referring to the vast amounts of knowledge that are required. In addition to the number of years of education, there are years of training where the pay is meager at best, less-than-minimum wage at worst. And after training is complete, the wages of a junior doctor or resident may be less than enough to cover the bills.
As hard as it is being a doctor, becoming—and then working as—a surgeon is even harder. The work can exceed 100 hours per week, and in addition to book learning, surgeons must also learn the techniques of operating, oftentimes in the wee hours of the night. Interminably long hours, meager pay, and the unspeakable stress of holding lives in our hands all add up to very unsociable people.
It often seems that medical students must make a choice: career or family. You can be a good, dedicated doctor—or you can be a good, dedicated mother or father.
Yet miraculously during my medical education and subsequent training as a surgeon, I managed to meet someone, start a relationship, get engaged, remain together for four years of long-distance romance, get married, move in together, and have our first child. And even more miraculously we made it all work.
But how? In an era when people are more disconnected than ever, when you look around at a restaurant and more than half the patrons are staring at their cellphones rather than engaging in conversation with the person sitting on the opposite side of the table, how can doctors make relationships work?
Part of my relationship success has to do with the fact that I happened to stumble across the most patient, loving, selfless, and trustworthy woman in the world (sorry, gentlemen, she’s taken). Her strength and resolve have gotten us through more problems than Dr. Who and Jack Bauer combined. But the majority of it is due to the philosophies by which my wife and I live. Our way of approaching each other and our difficulties has been vitally important to the strength of our relationship, and it has allowed us to surmount all of them.
So how did we do it? How did we survive four years of being apart when we only saw each other every fourth to fifth weekend?
To start, I was so busy studying that I barely had time to worry about anything else, and she was busy starting her career in pharmaceuticals. This was before the advent of cellphones and texting, so we talked. Every day. And not just “Hi, how was your day?” “Good, how was yours?” but in-depth conversations. Every single day. It could have been about anything: people we had met, conversations we had had, a news story that interested us, a new song we heard on the radio. Whatever it was, we engaged each other.
What we found was that communicating without seeing each other made us miss each other that much more and made our relationship that much stronger. A relationship that very easily could have devolved into “out of sight, out of mind,” instead turned into “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
So when the time would finally come for us to see each other again, the reactions we had were sometimes, shall we say, explosive. The raw emotions that had been building for weeks were suddenly released, and I occasionally felt bad for my neighbors. (Not really.)
Actor Terry Crews and his wife recently recounted a very similar experience, except theirs was a self-imposed a 90-day “sex fast.” They decided to abstain from sex for three months, hoping it would draw them closer. And like my wife and me, they found that not engaging in sexual activities allowed them to talk more, cuddle more, and rediscover who they were.
Unfortunately many surgeons don’t get that opportunity. Long hours along with stress at both work and home can very easily lead to burnout. Strategies have been developed in attempts to prevent and deal with burnout, but despite these efforts rates among surgeons remain high. One study found that 40 percent of American surgeons surveyed met criteria for burnout.
A recent article in The Guardian showcased the heartbreaking professional and personal burnout experienced by a woman surgeon in Britain. In stark contrast to the appreciation and adulation of her trainees, the anonymous surgeon highlights low pay, long hours, and family stresses. She commutes three hours a day, cannot afford her own membership in the Royal College of Surgeons or the last exam she is required to take, and often goes days without seeing her children. Her marriage, she states, “is likely over,” her debt makes her “sick with worry,” and her children are understandably distraught that their mother takes care of other people instead of taking care of them.
And after 12 years of suffering like this, she, like many others in my field, has decided to quit.
The difference between this anonymous British surgeon—along with most of my colleagues—and me is that I have always put my family first. This does not mean that my family always wins—there have been nights when I’ve missed dinner and my children’s bedtime because of an emergency in the hospital. I have made promises of reading stories to my children that I have had to break. I’ve brought work stress home and taken it out on my wife.
And for all those transgressions, I have apologized to them countless times, and they have forgiven me. However, unlike most of my colleagues, I make every effort to get my work done and go home. My cellphone always stays on, and I occasionally have to take calls from patients or the hospital. But when I am home, I am home. My family is always my number one priority, and when I am home even more so (if that is even possible). I read stories to my children, help them ride their bicycles, and wrestle with them on the floor. In other words, I do everything I can to be present.
In spite of my job and because of our efforts, my nearly two-decade relationship with my wife is stronger than it ever has been, and we grow closer every year. I have witnessed firsthand how the medical profession can rip marriages apart, and with each new divorce I see, my resolution gets that much firmer:
I will not let medicine beat me. I can be a good, dedicated surgeon and a good, dedicated father. I will beat this.