“Women shouldn’t be surgeons; it is impossible to find a balance between being a mother and a great surgeon.”
These were the words I constantly ran into as I started to consider a surgical specialty for my future career. At first, I paid heed to these words and decided to become a pediatric cardiologist. However, before long I realized I just could not be a clinician for life. The idea of treating patients with medications but never really correcting their underlying conditions started to push me towards surgery, especially because I wanted to focus my work on helping children. I realized I could never truly treat a child with only medication.
Thus, I started to explore surgery, beginning first with general surgery. I knew that lifestyle was an important issue with general surgery, as general surgeons are known to be among the hardest-working physicians. This is likely because their responsibilities include covering many parts of the hospital, from the emergency department to the operating room. Initially, this bothered me because raising a family and having a balanced lifestyle is crucial to me. I grew up with both of my parents always around and ready to help me with school projects, take me to the park to play, and put me to bed at night. As a result, I desire to continue the same atmosphere with my future children.
Hence, two options started to play a role in my career decision: the new integrated cardiothoracic surgery programs, and academic medicine. I always knew that I wanted to work with the heart, so the new “I-6” integrated six-year cardiothoracic surgery residency programs became very attractive to me. These programs trained surgeons to become heart surgeons at a faster pace—six years instead of eight or nine years. The only catch with these programs is that upon completion, you do not become board certified in general surgery. Since I knew I wanted to work with children and that pediatric cardiothoracic surgery was most appealing to me, I was agreeable with the fact that I may not be board certified in general surgery.
However, I still knew this route would constitute a significant amount of work. Even though this pathway allows people to graduate faster and reach their dream through a different route, it is by no means easy. This is when I found out about academic medicine. The fact that one could practice, teach and do research while having residents and students under them made me realize that it was very possible to become a surgeon and still find a balanced lifestyle. Sure, the salary may not be as high as in private practice, but if it meant I would have a constant income and be home by a certain time every day to see my family, then it would be worth it. Plus, I love teaching and doing research, so to me academic medicine was a bonus to the type of lifestyle I was trying to create.
Nonetheless, it was the words of my mentor that finally convinced me to choose cardiothoracic surgery as my specialty. He told me that at the end of the day, we as physicians can choose how to run our practice. Sure, residency was going to be hard and a lot of work, but all residencies are this way. Whether one pursues primary care or a surgical specialty, residency is going to demand a lot of time and energy. Regardless, when it is all over and you become an attending, then you can choose how you want your practice to run. But most importantly, you must be happy. The most important piece of advice he gave me was that if you go to work and have a great lifestyle but hate what you are doing 80 hours a week, then there is no point in pursuing that type of career.
In conclusion, my advice to those of you considering a career, especially a career that may not have the “best” lifestyle, is to remember that if you love what you are doing, you won’t see it as work, but instead as fun at the hospital on a daily basis. Everything is possible to balance in life. All of you have already made it to medical school; some of you are almost finished. Think about everything you have done and all the activities you have balanced just to get to where you are. If you truly want to make something work, I believe you can. Be sure to take other people’s advice with a grain of salt. If you want to become a neurosurgeon, go for it! Or, if you want to become a pediatric gastroenterologist, go for it! Lifestyle choices will come as you grow and advance in your training, but you only have a certain number of chances to choose which specialty you want to go into.
Pick wisely, but be happy in your decisions. Most of all, realize that there are many who have come before you in the field you are considering who have found a way to balance their lives and careers, and if they can do it, so can you!