This year has been challenging for every single person on this planet. Those challenges may have come in different forms but this is a moment in time when we realize - we all are just human. We are all more similar than we are different. There is a group of women who I share many similarities with so I wanted to pay tribute to each of them today. Physician Moms.
It is a long grueling road to become a physician. Countless hours of studying in medical school, 30 hour shifts during residency, sacrificed time with friends and family, emotional tolls on your mind from treating patients who are suffering … and so much more. It is also the most rewarding profession in the world in my opinion. The relationship you quickly create with a complete stranger in their time of need and being able to positively impact others’ health - are intangible rewards for many of us in medicine. I am also so grateful to be part of a profession that is rooted in lifelong learning. Among many other things, this job forces you to continuously learn and experience evolving science, socioeconomic inequalities in healthcare and the importance of human connection and compassion.
In many ways, motherhood is very similar to medicine. You must oversee another person’s well being - their health, safety and happiness. You sacrifice a lot of yourself many times to ensure that the job gets done to the best of your abilities. You are constantly learning and are committed to doing what it takes to ensure your little humans are protected and content.
When the pandemic first started, many of us faced challenges we’ve never experienced. Identifying and treating an unknown disease coupled with the fear of inadequate personal protective equipment. That feeling: I don’t know how to help my patients properly and I may be bringing this home to my family. That dual nature of being a physician committed to your patients and a mother committed to your children continues to be on many physician moms’ minds nine months into this pandemic.
My colleagues in the adult world, particularly in the fields of emergency medicine, intensive care, infectious disease and pulmonary care have seen unimaginable moments within the hospital walls. They have shared with me how they simply can’t provide the care they strive to because of limited resources given the overwhelming burden their hospitals are facing. We each take some form of the Hippocratic Oath upon entering medical school. We promise to uphold the highest profession ethical standards, commit to continuously teach students and serve our communities selflessly. Right now, it feels like an uphill battle for most physicians as cases rise and our hospital systems are breaking. Right now, it feels like an uphill battle when science is being devalued and mitigation efforts like masks and social distancing are politicized. Right now it feels like an uphill battle when our patients are dying alone from a disease that we, as a nation, could have controlled better with a unified effort.
Many of our children asked us the same question back in March: “Mommy why do you have to still go to work while everyone else has to stay at home?” Such a simple and logical question that brought tears to many Physician Mothers’ eyes. “Mommy has to take care of people who are sick and help them get better.” Our children would give us a nod of understanding, write us notes about how proud they were or embrace us in the tightest of hugs after a long and grueling shift (only after we had completely decontaminated in the garage or whatever routine we had grown accustomed to since the spring). Balancing the logistics of remote learning and the emotional toll it has taken on our children with the desire to do what is best for everyone around us has left many physician moms (and all parents in general) without much left to give.
Then the vaccine arrived. We all lined up to receive our shot and many shed a tear while the injection was given. It was a sign of hope. It was a positive energy during the darkest days. While it is not the instant solution or the finish line - it is a step in the right direction towards returning to some normalcy one day.
We want to give our patients the best possible care just like we promised upon entering our long journey of medical training. We want to hug them during a difficult conversation or during a celebration of victory over illness. We also want to give our children the best life possible. We want to hear all about their day with their friends and teachers over an after-school snack at the kitchen counter.
Motherhood has forever changed me as a physician. I can relate to how a parent is feeling about their child getting their blood drawn or that new mom who feels like a failure at breastfeeding when her child is admitted with jaundice. Being a doctor changed the way I practice motherhood. You know those moments in motherhood when you just need to scream? I still have those. However, when I reflect on what our patients are facing with their illness itself or access issues in their communities riddled with social inequality - I can remind myself to not sweat the little things. I am blessed with a job that I love and I have food on the table for my family. It's a profession that continues to teach me important life lessons and help me focus on the big picture during challenging times I face in my own journey of motherhood.
Becoming a mom made me a different doctor. Being a doctor made me a different mom. And both of those together have allowed me to become part of a group of inspiring women who serve their fellow humans in the hospital and return to care for their tiny humans at home.
I know the ER physician who is pumping in between patient visits to ensure her newborn gets the breast milk he needs. While she is pumping, she is crying quietly because she couldn’t save her last patient. I know the surgeon who schedules her cases in a way that ensures she can sit in the front row to cheer on her child in the school play. She still missed it however due to complications in the operating room; she is committed to her patient and her daughter but in this moment, she must save a life and miss the play. I know that pediatrician who stays up for hours after bedtime to complete the tsunami of electronic medical records from a busy day in the clinic - just so that she can spend uninterrupted time with her children every evening. While she prefers to complete those charts during the day, she recognizes the importance of connecting fully with her patients and families in the exam rooms during their visit.
I am so proud of each one of you and grateful to those women who paved the way for us. In fact, I remember walking the halls of our medical school as a brand new student and exploring the oversized class photos displayed near the library. It was quite a while until I spotted a female and it was just that - one female among a sea of men. Then, more and more started appearing in those class photos. Elizabeth Blackwell, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Ann Preston, Virginia Apgar - these females paved the way toward more balanced class portraits since 1849. This is why I felt inspired to create this image. I saw the modified version of Rosie the Riveter from artist Kyle Brinker. I saw all the photos of healthcare workers proudly showing their vaccine photo. Then it dawned on me that we were part of another first in history. Rather than individual, this was a group achievement for all of those scientists and healthcare professionals who have worked tirelessly and selflessly to help others during this challenging time in the world.
So, I proudly stand with the 1008 physician moms in this image. From the only female medical student in a class portrait to a sea of physician mothers receiving their COVID vaccine, I look at this image with such hope. It is only a drop in the ocean of ALL those who have contributed and committed to defeating this virus. Frontline workers, essential workers, parents, teachers and just about any person on our planet - everyone has been involved in this effort.
I hope that we can soon see each others’ faces fully and embrace in long hugs to celebrate victory. In the meantime, please stay safe and do your part … we are really in this together and we will get out of it together. Cheers to a happier healthier New Year.
*Please consider donating to No Kid Hungry to help children facing food insecurity - currently 1 in 4 children in the USA is food insecure. AHIMSA is committed to helping fight childhood food insecurity. We want plastic off the table but know it's more important to put healthy food on the table for all kids - no matter their zip code.
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