Trauma Surgeon’s Ballad by Lin Manuel Miranda

Originally posted on heelskicksscalpel.com

Like much of America, my family is currently obsessed with everything Hamilton on Broadway. We jammed to the sound track all summer. The season culminated with a late August trip to the show which I described on social media as the best day of my life. Seeing the show, the actors, the set, and choreography, come to life with lyrics we had all memorized was such an amazing experience.


I cried.

Part of that was pinching myself that it was actually happening (NB: Tickets now that the original cast is gone are not that hard to find on resale sites but still cost quite a bit above face value.) And the other parts were one particular segment that just cut into my soul when I saw the character of Aaron Burr singing it.

I sobbed.

Let me provide you context. Burr is an orphan who is in love with a married woman. He has decided that with everything he has gone through, all of the losses he has suffered, he is willing “to wait” for the woman he loves. As someone who was taught to hate Burr by her high school history teacher who was a Hamilton scholar, this humanization of Aaron Burr was a bit off-putting at first. But the reason I simply could not stop the tears while experiencing the song with all of my senses as the show was not about the forbidden love story behind it, rather is was the commentary on death.

“Death doesn’t discriminate

between the sinners

and the saints,

it takes and it takes and it takes

and we keep living anyway.

We rise and we fall

and we break

and we make our mistakes.”

These words resonate so strongly with my trauma surgeon’s soul. We provide care indiscriminately, irrespective of race, socio-economic status, mechanism of injury, insurance, etc. And we lose people. Sometimes they arrive lifeless; sometimes our efforts fail. When that happens we are broken. We wonder if we could have done anything differently; did we make a mistake? But we have to go on “living” because there are more patients waiting. Some of them are sinners while others are saints and it doesn’t matter we treat them all the same. Then we wait for the next patient to arrive.

The title of the song is Wait for It.

The Hamilton sound track is still more or less played in a continuous loop in my home, in our cars, on my runs. And every time I hear this song I cry. I can’t help it. It simultaneously breaks my heart for all my patients who have died and provides me reason to keep coming back to this very emotionally challenging and physically exhausting profession. I know it was not Lin Manuel Miranda intent to write this segment of music (the lyrics and the accompaniment which is haunting) for the trauma surgeon in me but that has been it’s effect and I am so grateful.

And as for the burnout that is particularly rampant in my specialty, despite the tears from this particular song, the overall experience of seeing the show on Broadway was truly one of the happiest days of my life – a perfect way to spend a weekend off and return to work refreshed and ready to wait for it

Defining “Mommy Friendly”

Originally published at heelskicksscalpel.com

I had a familiar conversation the other day with yet another female medical student.

“I really loved surgery!” she said, “but I was concerned about the lifestyle so I decided on _______________.”

Lifestyle, it turns out, almost always seems to be code for having a family (maybe it’s just the kind of students who are apt to seek me out as I have yet to encounter someone who is concerned that a surgical career will hamper their aspirations to compete in triathlons or become national fencing champions or write books for the general masses–I personally know surgeons who manage to work full time and do all of these).

The other day, I came across yet anther discussion board on what advice to give to women in search of “mommy friendly” medical specialties. There were lots and lots of suggestions, some were full time jobs with predictable hours and others were part-time jobs but not one of the suggestions was a surgical subspecialty.

Not. A. Single. One.

Sigh. This makes me sad for my chosen specialty and for all the promising young women who will not go on to realize their potential as amazing surgeons.

I would be lying if I said that surgery is lifestyle friendly. In fact, anyone who has followed this blog for more than a millisecond knows that many of our daily woes outside of work arise from the demanding hours and high stress of our career choice. But the question is: What does mommy friendly even mean? This is not the same as the “mother’s hours” often noted as selling points in help wanted ads. There may be ways to go really part-time or certain very specific specialties that enable a woman to only have to be at work when her kids are at school I suppose. But I have to believe that mommy friendly is about more than just the hours.

I know, I know. You are just waiting for me to launch into the cliche of it’s quality, not quantity. But I won’t.

Because the truth is I wrote all the words above nearly 500 days ago. It turns out I never finished because I don’t know what mommy friendly means when it’s used as an adjective for a career.

Since I first wrote the beginning of this blog post, I have spent well over a year of my life as a surgeon and a mother. I even wrote an open letter to young women with the same opening line evidently having forgotten about this draft. That letter, now read more than 15 thousand times, doesn’t define mommy friendly either.

Paid maternity leave. Private pumping rooms. Childcare. A promotion clock that doesn’t penalize for maternity leaves.

To be sure any work place can provide these but do the amenities in and of themselves mean the associated profession is mommy friendly? Not if the backhanded comments or outright displays of resent persist. Often, the culture of the profession is at odds with these progressive work place policies. And these replies on what medical career to choose clearly indicate that the culture of medicine has not caught up to modern times.

Luckily, however, not every one is reading the same message board. And so this week across the country a whole new crop of women begin training as surgeons. They are less a minority and more just reflective of the demographic of modern surgery. Hopefully, they will all become surgeons (there is still some attrition in our programs nationally) and some will become mothers. And my hope is that, together with the men they are training with, they will foster a culture in which is it no longer necessary to ask if surgery is a mommy friendly.

Here’s to all the Lead Parents, the co-Parents, and the Village it takes to Raise a Child

Originally posted at heelskicksscalpel.com

I get the working mom dilemma. I am a mother and I work the hourly equivalent of 3 full time jobs. I get it. It’s hard to do it all. And sometimes the tasks involved in either or both are just not that much fun. Though I have never been a stay at home mom I suppose this is why many call this the hardest “job” of them all.  It’s not all coos and snuggles. Parenting can be onerous.

But every time I hear a working mom anthem or a stay-at-home mom  anthem I feel sad for everyone who is left out, or worse, by implication, accused of not being able to or interested in parenting. As far as I can tell, other than gestating and breastfeeding, men can do every bit of parenting – the good and the bad, the fun and the tasking, the easy and the hard – that women can. And, just ask any adoptive mom or mom through surrogacy or step-mom and she’ll  probably tell you that those to bio/physiological processes aren’t requisite either.

To be sure,  I too am guilty of getting caught up in the mob mentality of the “moms have the hardest job in world” even though my husband does the vast majority of parenting in our household.

But, it’s 2016.

We do nothing but reinforce old stereotypes about gender roles with tales of the plights of moms. These are plights shared by all parents. Single parents. Gay parents. Heterosexual parents. Widowed parents. Each person’s role in the day to day tasks of parenting will vary. Sure there are deadbeat dads (and moms!) out there and, without congratulating them on their parenting failures, let’s just agree that the definition of an involved parent will vary based on a number of complex, overlapping factors ranging from natural affinity for children to income potential.

I understand that statistically the bulk of childrearing in our society is provided by women. Social norms, cultural discourse, and possibly some biology are at play in determining this statistic. But, as a woman whose children have been well-reared by a devoted lead parent (who happens to be my male heterosexual partner), four healthy-able bodied grandparents, and a neighborhood of friends who I trust to nurture and admonish my children, it just makes me cringe when a mixed audience of dedicated parents is subjected to a “The Hardest Job is Being a Mom” mantra.

Parenting is hard no matter who does the parenting. It’s also filled with incomparable joys. So hats of to to all the lead parents, to the co-parents, to the moms and the dads, and to the various villages who are doing their best amidst the ups and downs to raise a child in our modern world.

Here is my village.

An Open Letter to Young Women Considering a Career in Surgery

Originally posted at heelskicksscalpel.com

Dear Young Woman Considering a Career in Surgery,

It was lovely to meet you the other day. Many times a month, a young woman just like you comes to me with similar interests and concerns. “I really love surgery,” she says, ” But I am afraid of the lifestyle and I really want to have a family.”

Oh, and thank you for also inviting me to speak at your seminar the other day on Women in Traditionally Male Dominated Fields. I have been speaking at similar panel sessions since 2005 when I was a bit of a novelty at my training program as a clinical PGY-4 with an infant daughter. Your collective curiosity on what my life must be like is of great interest to me because to me it’s just my life. It’s the only reality that I know because, like you, I was young (just a few days into my 25th year, just 5 days into my first ever surgical rotation) when it occurred to me that I really loved surgery. It was unexpected; but every day since then (from the remainder of that MS3 rotation, to my sub-internships, to my years in residency, to research and clinical fellowships, and to these past 6 years on staff) I have crafted a reality, as tenuous as it is, that works for me and my family in any given moment in time.

And I am here to tell you that you can do the same too if you, in your heart of hearts, can think of nothing more exciting than surgery as your professional passion.

People outside of surgery will tell you that it’s a career that is too hard to integrate with family life. They are correct that it is generally harder than other fields in medicine; but, ask yourself if you truly want a career in general pediatrics, or dermatology, or invasive cardiology or anything in between. If the answer for whatever alternate field(s) you are considering is no, then no matter how many fewer hours your profession requires, no matter how much more flexible those hours may be, your family will be left with a present, well-rested, yet bitter wife and mother.

[NB: I use the word integrate very purposefully here. Anyone from a demanding profession, surgery or otherwise, who tells you that work-life balance is possible is conning you. Your life will never be in balance. Something will always have to give: your work, your family, or yourself. It’s in how you integrate these things in a shifting, fluid professional and personal lifetime that you will craft your own reality.]

 

The same can be said of those who encourage you to enter surgery training but then offer that you may consider a career in breast surgery or start an exclusive vein clinic or choose some other presumably less time sensitive and/or less time consuming surgical practice to balance your professional work with your desire to have a family. Again, ask yourself  if you can truly be happy in such a practice. (I personally would be bored with only a few kinds of procedures in my armamentarium and the absence of physiologic chaos; but everyone is different.) You may not know the answer until you are well into your training; but, choosing a medical specialty in the first place, or a surgical subspecialty in the second, simply because you presume it will be easier for family life is fraught with potential for professional dissatisfaction. I promise you that professional dissatisfaction will always stand in the way of overall family life satisfaction. Always. Forever.

Finally, as hard as it might be to envision yourself as a surgeon who wants hobbies, and a spouse, and a smoking hot body, and children of your own someday,  remind yourself that divorced parents, widowed parents, disabled parents, parents with deployed military spouses, and parents with far fewer socio-economic resources than practicing surgeons, and trainees for that matter, somehow get it done. Every life has it’s particular challenges when it comes to parenting but surely being a surgeon is not the most insurmountable of them all.

So think long and hard about alternatives to surgery; but choose one only if it speaks to your professional soul. No matter what career you choose, you will likely spend more time at work than on any other aspect of your life be it parenting, self-care, love-making, you name it. Therefore, it is critically important that your choice of career light the fire in your belly to show up every day leaving behind, at least temporarily, everything else including your children. Because one thing is for sure: when you are practicing surgery, your head needs to be in the game. You cannot be distracted by guilt about not being with  your family or about delegating some of the more mundane aspects of childrearing or homemaking to others. You must love the work enough to drop the guilt and create practical solutions to raise your children and provide them with a safe and loving space in which to grow while reimagining whatever stereotypes you hold about being the perfect parent.

Because you know what: There is no such thing as a perfect parent, surgeon or otherwise. So there will never be any point in beating yourself up about it. Know that you will love your children more than you could have ever imagined loving anything, including surgery, but that you will still be a great surgeon. The two are not incompatible, but it takes some effort and creativity.

So, now that I have convinced you to choose the career of your dreams here are some thoughts on the effort and creativity it will require.

Do not underestimate the importance of choosing a life partner who gets the soul inspiring nature of your career choice. He/She may be another surgeon, or physician in another specialty, or a non-medical professional, or a skilled laborer; it doesn’t matter as long as your life partner understands that, when you are tired from the long days and nights, or sorrowful for the lost lives, or otherwise distracted, it is not because you love work more than you love them. Bottom line: as awesome as any career may be there is something messed up about your priorities if you really would choose work over loved ones. So your life partner needs to get that you aren’t messed up; you just have a demanding career.

With the demands of that career comes the need for a real partnership in planning life. That doesn’t mean a 50:50 split or a 80:20 split or anything conscribed; it means a constant openness to splitting however it needs to be split or not splitting at all to ensure that life outside of work happens. It means making the most of precious few waking moments together through physical contact and communication. It means having a very user friendly calendar/shared to-do system. It means providing feedback without judgment for the practical things in life and making space for shared emotional and spiritual needs. If you find yourself paired up with someone who can’t work with you on life this way, then consider dumping him/her. Seriously, it’s not worth trying to make them happy if they just don’t get this hugely important part of what makes you whole.

[NB: If a life partner is not your thing or things just don’t work out, that’s okay. The same principles of reimagining, outsourcing, and dropping the guilt apply. It’s just that your village, or metropolis as may be the case for some surgeons, has a different population structure.]

 

Choose your job based on both professional and personal needs. Training is finite and there is always an end from which to take on a new direction. However, even though many surgeons change jobs, think of your job as your forever job so you don’t accept a situation which will turn out to be toxic for you. Choose partners who will have your back, and you, in turn need to be willing to have theirs. Choose geography that at least satisfies some of your desires for commute time, distance from extended family, lifestyle, weather, etc. and makes life easier. You can’t blame surgery if your long commute destroys your soul, or if having your parents thousands of miles away makes you sad, or if humidity, piles of snow, or whatever your most dreaded weather phenomenon is drives you crazy, or if it takes a flight to get to your favorite past time of hiking, biking, skiing, etc. That’s on you and the choices you have made as a surgeon and not on the profession itself. Finally, choose a practice type and setting that will make you excited to show up every day (for me it was research, teaching, and a level 1 trauma center in a university based system).

If you do have a life partner and working is important to him/her, don’t pick a location that will railroad his/her career. As much as being a surgeon defines you, your soul mate is similarly defined. Please don’t create a situation where he/she will be susceptible to resentment about having his/her professional goals squashed. (I’ve been there. It puts a real strain on a marriage. It sucks.) It’s already hard enough to be paired up with you, a surgeon. Both your jobs may be equally demanding, or one may be more demanding; it doesn’t matter as long as together you negotiate a mutually satisfying life-long give and take about who prioritizes what and when depending on the stages of your respective careers and the ever evolving needs of your family.

When is comes to family, do not waste too much mental effort over-thinking when you should start it. Fertility, along with finding the right person with whom to test your fertility, is a complex and unpredictable thing. No pregnancy is guaranteed to proceed smoothly. Given these inherent limitations and unknowns, along with the demands of a surgical career, there is no perfect time to start a family. This is about as certain as death and taxes. I will spare you the perceived pros and cons to having children during training compared to while in practice. Just know that every time period poses challenges and every passing year makes infertility more likely; so if you are ready in your personal life to try to get pregnant go for it; because, if you choose to wait for a perfect time, you will be waiting for a very, very long time.

And, if having children in a traditional sense is not possible for whatever reason, there is also no perfect time for assisted reproduction, adoption, or surrogacy either even though the salary increase a staff surgeon or faculty job may be necessary for these options. In the end, whatever approach to becoming a parent will be required,  you will figure out a way to get through the challenges because you will have mentally and emotionally committed yourself to the idea of being a mother who also happens to be a surgeon.

[NB: If you choose to not have children-by this I really mean choose as there are myriad other mishaps of life and physiology that prevent women who want to be mothers from becoming mothers-, please do not make that choice simply because you want to succeed as a surgeon. You will never forgive yourself. Not ever.]

 

When it comes to family there are various options to manage childrearing and homemaking. A nanny, two nannies, an au pair, daycare, a nearby grandparent, a neighbor who is a stay-at-home parent, or various combinations of these may be required to keep your children loved and safe. It’s different for every family and I promise you that you will find what works for  you. It will be a source of stress but it is doable. And, no matter how much time others spend rearing your children on your behalf, those kids somehow know that your are their mother, that you love them in a way beyond any other love, that you would give your own life if it would save them, and that you also happen to be a busy surgeon. Trust me. They will. And, they will be really proud of the uniqueness of their surgeon mom. They really will.

When it comes to your home, be it your 600 sqft rental in residency or your 2500 sqft grown up home in a cul de sac, outsource any jobs you and/or your partner simply do not enjoy. I cannot emphasize this enough. You will, in fact, have precious little time with your family. Ask yourself how you want to spend that time. Do you want to being cleaning and doing laundry? Or do you want to plan a family outing? If hopping on your John Deere and showing your lawn whose boss on your Saturday off is a fun activity for you, then by all means go for it, otherwise someone else will be happy to mow your lawn for a fee. If you love cooking, knock yourself out planning, shopping for, and preparing gourmet meals along with the associated clean up, but if you don’t then find a meal service. You get the point. If you don’t love it and it can be done by someone else outsource it. Even on a trainee’s budget you should strive to rid yourself of any household obligations you abhor. (For me the $55 spent every other week during residency for cleaning was well worth never having to spend a day off cleaning a toilet and now the extra hours we pay our nanny to do all of our laundry has spared me a monthly power weekend of washing and folding 10 loads of laundry because we just could not get to it all with the many kids’ activities, call nights, etc. that prevent daily washing.)

Remember: as little time as you will have at home to spend with family, you must also prioritize time for yourself. Don’t expect it to just happen. Just as you schedule elective OR cases, you must schedule elective you time. It may not happen very often but if you don’t take the time for self care in the midst of the stresses of the job and the stresses of parenting you will be cranky and miserable to be around. How you spend time away from family when you have so little time with them will change over time and you may even develop hobbies incorporating your family (we have taken to family bike rides and kayaking trips as the kids have gotten older to combine wellness with family time) but remember to schedule things that feel completely selfish to you. A girls’ night, date night, a pedicure, reading a trashy novel, going to a Zumba class during bath/bedtime, or whatever you enjoy is totally not selfish but you will feel that way; so a good barometer for whether or not you are making time for self care is how selfish it feels. My advice is feel selfish at least once a month.

[NB: If your selfish thing is not a fitness thing then you have to also figure out how to fit that in because your patients and your family need you to be healthy.]

 

Being a surgeon is not incompatible with being a good wife, mother, athlete, whatever else; it’s just trickier. But, if young women keep being scared away from surgical careers then these same fears will linger generation after generation; we will never achieve a critical mass of women surgeons in the profession who can set good examples for one another and for future surgeons. With the same focus we apply in the OR and the same organization we bring to rounds and the same compassion we bring to patient encounters, we can create a life strategy that overcomes these perceived barriers for both a happy family life and a successful surgical career. The barriers will change depending on the stage of the career you love so much and the needs, wants, and development of what and who you love outside of work; but, take it from this surgeon mom: they are barriers to be overcome, not shied away from.

I am pretty sure that’s why you showed up at my door and asked me to that seminar, to make what seems impossible to you at the moment seem possible. Let me tell you: if I can do it, you can too. Go forth, be a surgeon, be a wife, be a mom, be good to yourself and craft a reality that works for you. Then, pay it forward so that someday these meetings and seminars might be rendered obsolete.

Sincerely,

@surgeoninheels

Not just a token surgeon-mom-wife-runner

PS. Here is some inspiration. Your potential in surgery is limitless. https://www.womensurgeons.org/in-practice/leaders-in-surgery/

PPS. The Association of Women Surgeons is an invaluable professional organization whose goal is to: ENGAGE current and future women surgeons to realize their professional and personal goals. EMPOWER women to succeed. EXCEL in those aspirations through mentorship, education and a networking community that promotes their contributions and achievements as students, surgeons and leaders. https://www.womensurgeons.org/

PPPS. I have been fortunate for the last 10+ years to be a part of the American College of Surgeons Women in Surgery Committee working towards improved gender parity, opportunities for professional development, and better work life integration in our careers. https://www.facs.org/about-acs/governance/acs-committees/women-in-surgery-committee

Allowing myself to just be deserves accolades, not guilt

Originally posted at heelskicksscalpel.com

I am always telling myself to not be one of those bloggers who gives a play by play of his or her day. I prefer to blog about fun things or things from which I derive meaning and I hardly think that anyone gives a rat’s ass about what I did and when so fair warning:

THIS IS A POST ABOUT WHAT I DID YESTERDAY.

I woke up even earlier that I do when I feigning to be morning exercise person to get my daughter to a 6:30am arrival for a field hockey tournament 70 miles away. 4am is brutal for mom, for the tween player who now routinely sleeps until 10 or 11am on weekends, and for the sad sap of an 8 year old brother who needs to tag along since dad is away on a much needed and well deserved guys’ weekend. Of course I am chronically fatigued and it’s nice now that the kids are older that I can use the weekends to catch up on sleep. So to have this privilege stolen from me for a sporting event deeply hurt me but parenting wins so there I was driving 1 hour and 20 minutes each way. The kids both slept in the car both ways. I jacked myself up with caffeine hoping not to become a statistic we trauma surgeons like to study on driving and fatigue.

When we got finally got home at midday I was exhausted. Despite the caffeine coursing through my veins I could not keep my eyes open so I stumbled into a sleep on our ever so cozy sectional. But it was a broken sleep. I refused to simply go up to the bedroom and just give in completely to the tiredness. Nope, I kept hoping that I would soon rise and have a productive day. You see, after several years of working on work-life integration, I am still having a hard time with simply relaxing. I am so trained to think of it as lazy and unproductive that when I do nothing in particular (or choose to sleep rather than doing) I feel an enormous sense of guilt and failure.

In between my fits and spurts of sleep I was thinking:

The house is a mess. (I should be tidying up!)

There are multiple loads of laundry to be done. (I should be washing and folding!)

The kids are somewhere in this house fighting boredom. (I should be playing with them!)

The work to-do list is out of control. (I should be tackling whatever I can remotely!)

There are thank you cards to write. (I should be putting pen to Crane’s paper!)

The Kindle is filled with newly downloaded e-books. (I should be reading!)

My ass is getting fatter as I lay here and the sun is shining. (I should go out for a run!)

I woke up at dusk. I felt like kicking myself for these myriad failed opportunities to get stuff done, to be a better wife (who helps around the house every so often), to be a more engaged mother, to utilize any one of the 7 habits of highly effective people, to take care of myself.

Argh! The self-loathing was quick and sharp.

Later on, once the kids had made sure I ate and stayed hydrated (their dad has trained them well) and had headed to bed (after showering and reading to themselves)* I took the dog for a nice long walk feeling the need to pad the mere 1k steps I had accumulated up to that point since my daily target is 10k. It was a serene and beautiful night. There were no cars zipping by. No sound of Lifeflight that is frequently overhead. No other dog walkers even. Most lights in the neighborhood were off on the eve of returning to school after winter break.

As I was retelling myself all the failures of my day and tryinng to forgive myself, the peace and calm of the night got to me. It occurred to me that I surely deserved some peace and calm with all that I do day in and day out, at home and at work (okay, fine mostly at work!). It turns out that a perfectly calm and peaceful night was a fitting ending to a day of rest that I unintentionally engineered for myself despite all of my intentions (including with this blog) to take better care of myself. I deserved accolades and not self-flagellation. And so I tacked on 4k steps dropping a little more guilt with each stride, congratulating myself on a job well done, not for being lazy but for successfully allowing myself to just be. 

Today, I can see that it helped recharge me for the household chores, unending work obligations, needy family, and self-care that are still there today waiting for type A, get-the-job-done, me.

[*NB: It gets better as they age, I promise. I miss the cooing and burps and smiles of my babies but I sure do appreciate their self-sufficiency on these lazy, ummmmm restful, days.]