Updated: Sep 20, 2019
I’m a physician married to a physician. Initially, I did not think I would face obstacles because of our dual career paths. I would soon learn, however, professional and personal life sacrifices would be necessary for us to achieve our goals. This is my story as a training physician and a “single” mom, including some of the challenges I experienced being married to a physician.
In medical school, I didn’t know what specialty training path to pursue. I was concerned. As I neared the end of my third year of medical school, I was almost done with my clinical rotations, and nothing had clicked. My last rotation was OBGYN. Thankfully, I found the field that I loved. During this OB/GYN clinical exposure, I became interested in reproductive challenges. During residency, my interest was further solidified. I found myself most intrigued during my Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility (REI) rotation, studying the basic mechanisms and physiology behind a variety of conditions ranging from the basics of the menstrual cycle to rare endocrinology disorders. Most of all, I loved helping couples who were struggling to conceive reach their dreams of building a family. The genuine bonds that develop with the couples are extraordinary, and for me, it was a huge part of why I chose this field.
I met my husband in the first year of medical school, and we began dating 6 months later. As we progressed through classes together, I always thought my husband would go into a primary care field. He had an innate ability to see things from other people’s perspective and empathize with them. Primary care seemed like the right fit. To my surprise, he told me one day he wanted to go into Neurosurgery. I was not expecting it, but I could see he found a specialty he equally loved.
We weren’t married at the time of the residency match, so choosing to match together was a difficult decision. Then came how we approached the match. We both interviewed and told our respective residency program directors that matching with our significant other was a priority. A major hurdle for me was that his subspecialty was in the early match. Therefore, his rank list and match result would determine where I would target matching as well. I, thus, took a particular interest in his match list. He had his version of his list, and I had my version of it. This was my first experience realizing that our professional goals would not always coincide. The programs that were great for him would not necessarily be good for me, and visa versa. We realized that our paths may take us to different locations. Since I knew I wanted to pursue a REI fellowship after residency, my priority was to match in an OBGYN residency program that had a REI fellowship and research opportunities. I knew that REI was a competitive match and having these resources would be important to a successful match. He ultimately matched at an institution where there was no REI fellowship program. I had to choose: did I want to match with him or separate from him and pursue my professional goals at another distant training program. I ended up potentially sacrificing my fellowship aspirations and followed him to train at his institution.
While progressing through a busy clinical training program, I worked as hard as I could to find infertility related research opportunities in other departments, publish as many papers as I could, and get the highest scores I could on our yearly residency exams. Around this time, we got married. But, now came the next dilemma. There were no REI fellowship programs in the state, and my husband still had years of training left. If I matched in an REI fellowship program after residency, I would have to move away from him for 3 years. I was determined to follow my career aspirations, and he was supportive, so I interviewed everywhere in the country. I didn’t want to take a chance of not matching. I was fortunate and matched, but in a program that was on the opposite side of the country. Now we were facing spending 3 years of being 3 times zones and several thousand miles apart.
People asked me if I was concerned that long-distance would end our relationship. I wasn’t really concerned. We had already been together for nearly 10 years at this point. We are both committed people. We agreed from an early stage in our relationship that family was a top priority and divorce was not something we believed in, so neither of us worried much about infidelity or the chance of divorce. That may have been naïve, but we managed to push through it. We saw each other once every 4 to 6 weeks. It was hard. As hard as it was, there was a small blessing in this experience. The time apart allowed us have breathing room to focus on our training and also to miss each other again. In some ways, it was a rejuvenation of our relationship. I look back now and remember the benefits it brought to our relationship the most.
During my fellowship, I naturally found myself surrounded by infertility and remember many days counseling patients younger than me who were struggling to conceive. I had several friends my age or younger going through IVF. At this point, I was all too aware that I was 35 years old, childless, with a husband on the other side the country. I did want to have children. I wondered if I would even be able to conceive. I seriously considered doing IVF and freezing embryos, but decided we should try to conceive on our own first. Timing-wise, I wasn’t sure how successful this would be with my husband cross-country. I told myself we would try anyways and do the best we could for 6 months, then move on to IVF. At the mid-point of my fellowship we began trying. I was truly surprised and quite fortunate to conceive naturally. I was very excited but then the sobering part struck: I was going to go through a pregnancy and be responsible for raising a child for 8 months post-delivery alone.
Never did I think I’d be in this situation. I was a first time mom and did not know anything about taking care of a newborn baby. Where I was training, I didn’t know many people outside of work. I definitely didn’t know any moms in my area that I could seek guidance from. After my son’s birth, I struggled to breastfeed, and he was losing weight post-delivery. I quickly turned to using a breast pump and supplementing his diet with formula to make up for a lack of breast milk production. I struggled to keep up pumping while also working and gave it up after 3-4 months in favor of formula. My husband asked me to go longer and not give up. His intentions were good. He just wanted to give the breastfeeding benefits to our son for as long as possible. But, I told him he could have an opinion on it when he was living with me and helping care for the baby on a day-to-day basis. Until then, I told him, I’m doing my best to get through this. I had to also take my written REI boards during this time. It was hard to find enough time to study. I ended up flying relatives in to stay with me in my apartment for the weeks leading up to the test to watch the baby while I studied. Thankfully, that worked and I passed. Those 8 months were stressful.
As we both concluded our training, we began the search for our “real job.” Similar to our previous experience with the match, I knew this was going to be another challenge. My husband wanted to do academics, which has limited jobs, and the places he interviewed weren’t ideal for me. I re-learned just how hard it is to find jobs for two highly subspecialized physicians in the same area where both spouses were happy with the opportunity. Thankfully, we ended up in the same city! That alone was such a blessing. We were finally done with our training. We were starting our professional careers as Dr. Johnson and Dr. Kathiresan, and would, once again, be living under the same roof.
After I got married, I made the decision to keep my maiden name for several reasons. One: All of my degrees are in my name. Two: My husband’s last name is Johnson, and I thought it might be confusing for patients to see an Indian physician named “Dr. Johnson.” Three: I come from a family of 3 girls, and I wanted in some way to carry on the family name for as long as I could since there was no boy in our family to do that. I am now the only one in my immediate family with the name Kathiresan. My husband and children all have the name Johnson. What is interesting and something I did not expect after completing all my years of training is I am often mistaken as “Mrs. Johnson” instead of Dr. Kathiresan. It commonly happens when I take the kids to the pediatrician’s office or school. It also happens often when we get formal invitations to parties or weddings. It is typically addressed to “Dr. and Mrs. Johnson” or “Drs. Johnson.” It used to bother me. I worked hard to earn my title. My husband spent 9 years training, and I did 7 years. He’s required to do 1 set of board exams, I had 2 sets (1 for General OBGYN, and 1 for REI). He’s a surgeon, and so am I. It’s not a competition. I am beyond proud of my husband, but my accomplishments are similar. In addition, I sacrificed my professional path in our journey and raised a child alone for a brief period of time.
I have come to realize that as a female physician in a dual physician family, it isn’t good enough for me to be a great physician to my patients. I also have a second and equally important job - to manage the house and kids. I have several roles and several #hatsIwear. I am a wife and mom, and I love those roles in my life and embrace the “Mrs. Johnson” title at home. But, I’m also a highly trained physician, and my title is also Dr. Kathiresan. I am inspired by so many amazing women physician’s using their voice to speak out again the gender inequality that exists for women in medicine today (#asawoman), and I wanted to share my story and some of the sacrifices it took for me to be a woman in medicine. I do not regret any of my decisions, because they made me stronger. In the end, the struggles were worth it in order to chase my dreams.