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Taming The Jealous Mistress

“Medicine can be like a jealous mistress if you are not careful Sean….” These words were spoken to me 10 years ago by a much older, and at the time, possibly wiser Orthopedic Surgeon. The man was in the waning days of his career, and at 65 years old was currently working on his third marriage and had a 3 year old son. I listened to his words, but I could not fully appreciate the gravity of my chosen career. I remembered thinking, “this guy must be crazy…he is still working 80 hours a week, he failed 2 prior marriages, he is now remarried…and has a small child….and he is telling me about how Medicine is like a jealous mistress…” But as time went on, I realized a specific pattern starting to develop in my associations with other physicians: many of my father’s friends who were physicians were divorced. Many of the physicians I was starting to work with were divorced. Some had remarried; some were working on their 3rd or 4th marriage-starting anew. Many were estranged from their own children. A few even had problems with drugs and alcohol. Maybe there was something to the “jealous mistress” thing. Could the job really be the only blame? Of course not, but my chosen career, like many other jobs which require a high degree of self sacrifice can, if one is not careful, become really like that other person in your life.

I have reflected on my life over the past 10 years since starting my career in Medicine. For the most part I have given up the luxury of weekends off and 9 hour work days. I cannot even count the times I left the house at 600 AM, only to return exhausted at 900 PM, for 6 days straight. I used to think medical school was rough-only to find Residency 30-grit rougher. Not only is Medicine the ultimate time monger, but our work also involves great personal sacrifice…caring for others in need. It is very difficult to place into words how mentally and emotionally draining this care can be…particularly in the Emergency Department. Day in and day out we work in a fast paced pressure cooker. Here, our patients do not care about the type of day we are having; a dying patient need not to know that you are having marital problems, or that your kid is failing school. Many physicians have to completely compartmentalize their life from their work-your normal life gets shoved to the dark recesses of your mind for 12 hours. When leaving work after a draining shift-the reality of medicine, and the stress of your day dissipates, only to be met by your life’s real problems. As many physicians with problems outside of work admit-whether it is marital, drug or alcohol abuse,” they just do not have the energy to deal with their real problems.” They either turn to something else, or dig in deeper to their career. Everything about her is seductive: the time, the pressure, the stress, and the commitment.

I think this is where the notion that Medicine is like a jealous mistress begins…and ends. I have come to realize that I, or any other physician, cannot blame our career on our life’s troubles. Sure the job demands much more than the average, but it is our choices which ultimately determine our happiness. I am reminded of a quote by the late John Candy: “Like your work, Love your wife.” Amen. I recently have had many new aspiring physicians ask me “how do you balance work and home life?” It is not easy. But priorities are paramount. I vowed early on that my wife and children will always be paramount-they are my number one, and my job will never replace them. I tell newer colleagues if they want to be surgeons, if they want to do research, if they want to be leaders of their chosen profession, that is wonderful….but these aspirations will require great sacrifice. Just do not sacrifice what is truly important-the ones who love you. Very few, tread in these waters and maintain the harmony between work and family life they or their families expect.

“Medicine can be like a jealous mistress if you are not careful Sean.” He was right, you do have to be careful, but we are in control of our own destiny. We choose our own priorities, and these dictate the life will lead. After a grueling 12 hour day in the Emergency Room-after the stress, the chaos, the heartache, and triumph-I know at the end of it all, my wife and child are waiting. Everything else melts away. The mistress once again gets the boot.
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About the Author

The Stanford Emergency Room is the center of emergency care at Stanford University.