Thursday, February 4, 2016
February 3rd, 2016 is the First National Women Physician Day, held on the 195th birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. - Ed.
As a palliative care doctor, most of my professional life is spent with patients and families dealing with the physical and non-physical challenges of serious illness. I have sat with many patients and stood next to their families as last breaths were drawn. Death and dying is not the only thing I do, but it’s a substantial part of it. So it’s interesting that for me, being a doctor is closely linked with the beginning of life. I’ve never been a doctor without being a mother. My oldest son was born at the beginning of my fourth year of medical school and he was 13 months old when I started residency. For me, doctoring has been entirely about discovering new life at home, and learning to recognize the end of life at work.
As a doctor, I’ve taken overnight call through three entire pregnancies, and went back to work when my children were weeks old. I’ve pumped breast milk in rooms without locking doors, 10 minutes at a time in the middle of rounds when I had to, written notes and spoken to colleagues on the phone while pumping, and spent literally six hours at a patient’s bedside instead of pumping because they needed me there (needed to change my shirt after that one). I’ve rounded while miscarrying. I’ve spent Mother’s Day in the hospital on call, when my husband and son brought me dinner and flowers, which a nurse then threw away (I cried right in the middle of the floor). I spent my youngest son’s first Christmas in the hospital with my residents. I listened to my fellow residents tell stories about their post-call nights out with one another, as I went home to my little family. Being a doctor and a mother has been physically demanding, and sometimes intensely emotionally painful.
But...on those days when I come home sad and tired, with no greater wish than to pull my head into my shell and hide, I have little hands holding mine. When I want to be hard and keep the world out, I have three little people who need me to be soft. Their joy in discovering a new skill reminds me that even when things seem bleak, there is the possibility of growth. Their frustration with their inability to do the things they want to do reminds me that everyone wants control over their situation and giving it back can be the best medicine. Over and over again they teach me that nothing in life is perfect and that the most important you can do is show up and do your best. Being a woman and mother is not incidental to my doctoring but lies at the very core of it. I’m thankful that I’m a woman and a mother in a field which has been welcoming of what I bring to the table. And as the 7th doctor in my family and the first woman, I’m thankful for women like Dr Elizabeth Blackwell who blazed a trail that led me to this work and this life.
Meredith MacMartin is a palliative care physician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (@DartmouthHitch) and @GeiselMed. She is also one of the moderators of #hpm chat.