“What it’s like to be a parent: It’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do but in exchange it teaches you the meaning of unconditional love.” ~ Nicholas Sparks
On August 31st my husband Colin and I will be celebrating 20 years of marriage. In celebration, I am dedicating all 4 posts in the month of August to our journey together which has been intertwined with our training and work in medicine. Last week, our story began in medical school. When we left off, we had received our Medical Degrees from the Univeristy of Western Ontario (1998) and were accepted into residency programs at the University of Calgary – Colin into Psychiatry and I into Family Medicine. Our greatest challenges in medical education were behind us right? Let’s just say no one prepares your for residency training…just like no one can prepare you for parenthood.
Full disclosure – before starting medical school neither Colin nor I knew what residency training meant, let alone the rigors behind it. Neither of us grew up with any physicians in our family, nor did we really know any on a personal level otherwise. Certainly, once in medical school and especially during clinical clerkship rotations in 3rd and 4th years, you start to get a glimpse of what residency entails. However, as I mentioned, seeing it and living it are two entirely different things, again just like parenthood.
Being thrust into the life of a resident is challenging. The expectations are high, you are on-call frequently and you have essentially no control over your schedule. Colin and I lived in a fourplex at the beginning of residency, and as it would turn out, we lived in 4 different places in our 5 years in Calgary – in retrospect, neither of us would recommend such frequent moves at the most stressful time in your life. Unfortunately, that first place we lived in doesn’t conjure up the best memories, probably because I associated it with the challenges of adjusting to residency life. We found it difficult to coordinate our call schedules being in two different programs.
Being on-call really was the worst part of residency – by far for both of us. Those were the days when a 28 hour rule existed, meaning you couldn’t be on-call for more than 28 hours in a row. As we both learned as we moved through different rotations, the general expectation was that you would work every second of those 28 hours, and in some instances, you were expected to break the rule in the more demanding specialties. Some rotations, such as psychiatry, were overall less physically demanding than others, such as internal medicine, where you ended up running around to different areas of the hospital at all hours. Some would argue that psychiatry was more mentally demanding, but given it was an area that I enjoyed, I felt the other medical and surgical rotations to be far more grueling. The adrenaline rush that some thrive on in medicine has never been my thing.
After our first year of residency, Colin switched from Psychiatry into Radiology. If you could find two specialties at the opposite ends of the spectrum, this might be them. That switch turned out to be life changing for Colin – he had found an area of medicine he was perfectly suited for. If you know Colin, he is very detail oriented and able to retain a great deal of rote memory knowledge such as anatomy. It was really fortuitous that such an area that you have very little exposure to in medical school would be an elective that he chose early on in residency training. It was also fortuitous that a Radiology resident had switched into another program which opened up a spot for Colin.
Despite the sleep deprivation and more time apart than we would like, we have many fond memories of our residency days. When not fulfilling the demands of our programs, we enjoyed cycling and roller blading around the Bow River and Prince’s Island Park in Calgary. We also spent time with family, most of whom lived in Calgary for a period of time, and friends, and just appreciated even more when we were able to spend time together doing the usual life stuff.
During my final year of residency, year 2 of 2 for me and year 2 of 5 for Colin, we decided to live the truth that “no perfect exists time to have a baby”. We were both surrounded by women in medicine who delayed having a family until completing various aspects of training and practicing, but we wanted to start our family when we were young enough to push through the lack of sleep and hopefully reduce our risks of pregnancy and childbirth. When we found out early in 1999 that we would we expecting a baby in September, we were truly overjoyed.
I quickly realized that the combination of an erratic schedule and pregnancy was a guaranteed recipe for
morning all-day sickness. To this day, I have a lot of compassion for women who experience nausea and vomiting with pregnancy. I’m sure I was a real treat for Colin during those few months. Then mid way into my pediatrics rotation, I had Influenza (before the days it was recommended to get your flu shot during pregnancy), and I quickly became aware of what it felt like to think you are going to die. Of course, I was far from it, but in that moment where every part of your body is fighting you, you can’t imagine coming out the other side.
I certainly didn’t glow during pregnancy but can’t complain too much because I hung in there until right before my due date. After a warm, pregnant summer our beautiful boy was born September 29, 1999. The next few months were joyous and all too short lived as I had only 16 weeks off before starting back into residency – trauma surgery. Although the prospect of this rotation terrified me, the thought of leaving our new babe was more terrifying. We knew that I just had to get through the next 9 or so months and then we would be able to have some more control over my schedule – in particular, no-call.
Despite having a baby who defied the rules of sleep and much preferred to be awake, Colin and I really started to unify as the affectionate term he now uses for our family of four as “Team Taylor”. As difficult as completing residency training was, having a child during that point in time gave us perspective that turned out to be invaluable. To this day, Colin and I both believe that perspective taking is one of our greatest abilities that we must tap into in our lives.
Time marched on, as it does, so after our son turned 2, we decided it might be time to expand our family. By this time, I was working as a Family Physician and Colin was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel so to speak in his residency training.
After a more difficult pregnancy (which I didn’t anticipate), likely due to juggling work and running after a toddler, our equally beautiful daughter was born in August 2002. Once again, we didn’t make life easy for ourselves as Colin was facing his final year of residency, which also meant a year of exam preparations. In May of his final year, he had to sit the Royal College exam. This exam turns into a life unto itself and can be a deal-breaking factor to be able to practice if you do not pass it.
During that year, I know how hard it was for Colin to squeeze in studying on top of residency demands and family time. He would get up very early and stay up late – whatever was necessary. By this time, we had 2 children that considered sleep to be optional, but I guess medical training taught us how to stay afloat despite pervasive sleep deprivation. It is also during those times that we realized those challenges wouldn’t last forever. Now having 2 teenagers who enjoy sleeping, we can confirm it does get better.
Those 5 years that encompassed both of our residency training programs and having our two children were by far the most challenging and rewarding years of our life. Would I do it over again? I have thought about this a number of times and in the end, how could I say I wouldn’t? I wouldn’t be the person I am today, I wouldn’t have the same marriage I have today and I certainly wouldn’t have the same children I have today (have you ever wondered how different your life would be if conception was even thrown off by a day?).
In the end, I am grateful for those years as I found a strength and determination that needed to be rattled – it does the soul good.
I plan to end each of these posts with a question and reflection from Colin.
Me: When you think back to our days of residency and having babies, despite the challenges, what are the good things that come to mind?
Colin: They truly were the worst of times and the best of times. Although our training was so demanding both mentally and physically, it was completely offset by having so much love at home. Everything at that time seemed worth it – all of the hard work was ultimately for my family now, to give them the best life I could. At the end of the day, I knew you and the kids were my life so that made everything else manageable.
Until next week when we visit the practicing physician years…