Were the sacrifices you made to become a physician worth it?
This is a question that I get asked at least couple of times every month, mostly by well-meaning friends, parents of kids who are interested in pursuing a career in medicine, parents of my patients, and sometimes just random strangers when they know that I take care of critically ill children. Needless to say, I am forced to ponder this question more often than I would like to.
I have been practicing medicine for 24 years, including my years in training. During this time, a lot has happened in life: some good, some neutral, and some bad. I met the love of my life, got married to him right out of medical school, gave birth to a beautiful girl, completed a residency in pediatrics, moved my family halfway across the world, and completed another pediatric residency and fellowship back to back while raising our daughter as an anchor parent.
As I reflect on almost 2 1/2 decades of my life in medicine, I am humbled by how far I have come and how much I have achieved, and I am so grateful for all the good things in life. I have been an attending in a tertiary academic medical center for the past six years, with a promising career in pediatric critical care and medical education, including a leadership position. I am blessed with a happy marriage, a teenage daughter who is a typical teenager (what a relief!), loving extended family members, and many close friends. I am honored to be a part of many critically ill children’s lives, who have taught me resilience, the essence of time, and a great appreciation for life. I have also received great appreciation and random acts of kindness for the role I play in helping children and families affected by illnesses. These include hugs and prayers from patients, parents, and co-workers; a speeding ticket write-off when the police officer learned that I was driving over the limit at 2 a.m. to attend a coding child at the hospital; a flight agent who completely refunded my travel fare (against their usual policy) when he learned that a mission trip to train pediatricians in Haiti got canceled due to political unrest.
However, as I start counting the events that I missed during these times, the list goes on and on. My mother suffered a stroke; my dad survived two heart attacks; three of my classmates, my grandmother, and my 21-year-old cousin all passed away; my sister and many of my cousins got married; I became an aunt to two beautiful nieces. I had to stop counting as I was consumed by guilt and sadness to realize that I was able to be part of only two of these important family events. I found myself tormented by many questions: was it just me who had to sacrifice, and what exactly did I sacrifice? Did I sacrifice anything or just make choices that forced those in my life to sacrifice? It struck me then that I was not the one who sacrificed the most — it was folks in my life who did. My husband of 17 years who had sacrificed his sleep, time, and health by commuting between various cities; all the life events he missed due to the demands of my training and career; and quality time as a family and a married couple. My teenage daughter missed her mom’s presence during most of her elementary school life, as well as my care and love during the numerous night calls and 80-hour work weeks during my training. I thought of my parents who dearly missed my presence and help when they needed it most. Of my only sibling who missed me during both her deliveries and her medical school graduation; and the setbacks to her career advancement opportunities because she was the one who was left with a disproportionate burden of taking care of our aging parents. My friends missed me during some of the most difficult times in their lives, not to mention my extended family members and community members who never saw or heard from me during my training years.
In all honesty, I feel that this question can only be truly answered by those who are near and dear to my heart. When I try to answer this question and balance my achievements against what I missed, I realize — with pain and utmost guilt — that the scale tips slightly in my favor, and my loved ones end up getting the short end of the stick. I look forward to being at work most days, even though I have short stretches of feeling exhausted and struggle with work-life integration. I have been able to be genuinely satisfied with my career choice, derive immense meaning and advancement in my career. I also realize that my success, happiness, and satisfaction, both with life and work, are fueled by the many sacrifices of my loved ones.
So for those of you who aspire to lead a successful and meaningful career in medicine, I can assure you that you will not regret your choice, but your success will be the end result of many painful sacrifices from your family and loved ones. Please keep your loved ones close and deliberately work on maintaining, nourishing, and appreciating those relationships, because only they can get you through this demanding yet meaningful career. While I feel that the choices I made are worth the rewarding career that I enjoy now, the question “Were the sacrifices I made to become a physician worth it?” remains to be answered by my those nearest and dearest to me.
Dr. Asha Shenoi is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric critical care and Assistant Dean, Clinical Learning Environment for Graduate Medical Education at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Shenoi’s research interests include physician well-being, ICU Quality and safety, and critical care education initiatives in resource-limited settings. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky with her husband and daughter.
Previously published in the Kentucky Doc Spring issue.
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