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Surgeons DO Have Lives

“Surgeons don’t have lives.”

It’s not true, or at least, it doesn’t have to be. I live a full one, though it’s not without a conscious effort to do so. It’s not to say we don’t make sacrifices to be able to practice this craft - we do, and it is indeed a privilege.

When I discovered that I just HAD to work with my hands during medical school, I was warned that surgery, especially orthopaedics, was not for women and not even for anyone, male or female, that wanted a “life”. That it’d be tough to “find” a spouse to marry (what is this, a scavenger hunt? We “found” each other, for the record). Or, have children, and if I did, I’d be a bad parent.

I’d have to disagree. Certainly there are sacrifices that are made sometimes. Will a surgeon parent be at every school party, every single soccer game? Not every one, no. The parent who makes it to every single event, day time, night time, weekend and weekday who works in the home, a.k.a. a stay-at-home parent. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that choice, and I do know physicians who have elected to leave their practice to do so. It’s an individual and a very personal choice. One consideration for future surgeon parents, is to consider the setting that would allow for some type of parental leave (it takes much creativity in some settings!) - and to consider the recognizing board’s requirements for remaining active. I know some surgeons who have taken locums positions instead of joining practices to be able to have more flexibility. There’s consulting work as well. There are options, but it’s important to know that it may not look like what is traditionally thought of as a surgery practice.

As for me, I didn’t go into medical school thinking about parenthood. Interestingly, I wasn’t one of those little girls that dreamed of being a mom. I’m a bit ashamed that in my medical school days, my retort was that I didn’t plan to have kids, which in a way protected me from the arguments above. I don’t know why I thought I wouldn’t be a parent. But in hindsight I’ve always been kind of maternal - I take care of those around me, and now, I see that I’m doing just fine as a mom. I think it came from a fear that I couldn’t take care of someone else when I wasn’t 100% taking care of myself.

As women, we do spend our fertile years in school and in training. Though admittedly as a non-traditional student with a prior career, my most fertile years were pre-medical school. Starting medical school at almost 30, had I wanted to be a mom - or at least biologically so - I was even MORE behind the 8 ball.

I met my husband during medical school, and we married as residents. It wasn’t until I was closer to 40 than 30 that I did a full 180 and went from not wanting to children to feeling the pressures of a ticking biological clock. Then all of a sudden it had to happen NOW. Or, yesterday. We were fortunate in that it only took a “little” of fertility help, unlike so many of my friends and acquaintances.

The challenges of being a parent of a young child are present throughout any stage of medical education and training. For me, it was lucky that the timing was such that I would be an attending surgeon, and that I could afford a nanny. This isn’t always the case for my colleagues that do this earlier in training. But there are ways to make it work and they do.

Today I have a grade schooler, and we do all the typical things a family of three would do. We ski, we paddle-board, we go to soccer games, and more.

But with a pulmonary/critical care physician spouse, it might just be one of us there, though sometimes both- and we have to accept that.

Having a good plan for making sure my kid is safe and fed when we are both working also takes an insane amount of forethought, planning and a multitude of iCals. I am always nervous about not having childcare when I have surgery or clinic, so I have a deep lineup. I prefer knowing that I can be 100% focused on my patients when I am at work, so having that peace of mind is mandatory.

Even with a unicorn nanny who has never missed a day of work in 6 years (really.), there are times I need back up and back ups to the back up. When they say it takes a village, they ain’t lying. I’ve had my son dropped off at a neighbor’s when I’ve been late. I’ve had friends help with pick up and sleepovers. I truly couldn’t do this without not only a supportive spouse - even busy as he is - and a deep, deep lineup of people who care and don’t bat an eye when I’m in a pinch. The bigger the village, the better.

So what does it take to have a life as a surgeon?

Good support in some form - whether it is family, friends, neighbors or childcare professionals or some combo of it.

Expectation management - that there just are going to be some things you’ll miss, but hopefully not too many with good planning and coordination.

Organization - a good system is crucial.

Communication - between all parties involved. There’s nothing that sets my hair on fire as when my spouse and I forget to note on our calendar that someone has to be in at work earlier than anticipated!


Dr. Nancy Yen Shipley shares her expertise in orthopaedics and writes about finding your renaissance woman on her site,

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So true Nancy and you have been phenomenal to balance everything and be successful at what you do. I went through similar with large doses of mummy-guilt thrown in. It got better as the kids got bigger and were more independent!

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