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When asked to describe my life, I often reply, “It is organized chaos.” I have a very full life including an academic cardiac surgery clinical practice and a busy family life including a spouse who is an otolaryngologist, a 7-year-old son, and a 3-year-old daughter. This makes for a very fulfilling and rewarding life. Nothing equals the thrill of saving a life by performing a necessary cardiac operation. The rewards of this profession are profound. Similarly, nothing equals the thrill of having children and being a part of their lives as they grow and mature. The rewards of having a family are immeasurable.
Heart surgery requires technical finesse, decisiveness, adaptability, and physical stamina. Many of these qualities are beneficial in the daily multi-tasking that parenting and medicine require. Prioritization and delegation are important, as we as surgeons may start the day with “a full plate” and things are continuously added. Academic deadlines, research deadlines, patient emergencies, long operations, and family needs compete for our valuable time. This is similar to the balancing act of a trapeze artist. The surgeon – parent is walking a tight rope while juggling balls, when someone throws a flaming sword her way. The surgeon–parent must learn to say “NO” to additional obligations at times and may occasionally miss important family events. As with most things in life and in any career, you must possess flexibility as the unpredictable certainly will happen. At the end of the day, it is tremendously rewarding when you can explain to your 7-year-old how you saved someone’s life.
How is combining all of this possible in a 24 hour day? Sometimes I wonder! In my situation, this is made possible by a very supportive spouse who is also a surgeon, an outstanding secretary, a good child care provider, understanding partners, and a level of income that allows for the hiring of help for household chores and childcare.
In the past, a significant barrier to having a family and being a surgeon has been the ability to have children during a long and rigorous training. Training and work hours have changed over the course of my career. I did not decide to have children until I was a faculty member. In this way, I had much more control over my own schedule. It is now clear that having children is now possible at any level during training, so this should not be a reason to direct oneself away from the amazing world that is cardiothoracic surgery.
I know that I am a better surgeon because I am a mother, and I am similarly a much better mother because I am a surgeon.