My husband begins his last year of residency tomorrow.
I have written multiple blog posts that specifically focus on the experiences we have had while in residency, but they all sit in my hard drive. They won’t be published.
In fact, as I type this, I don’t know if I’ll publish this one, either. I’ll just keep typing and see what I end up with. My older posts usually end with me in tears and shutting down the computer. My visceral reaction has always scared me. I turn to humor when I am overwhelmed, scared, tired… finding something funny in the midst of hardship or confusion has been my coping mechanism. Is it healthy? Maybe. I’d rather have laugh lines in thirty years than a sick liver from too much wine.
So when tears start to form instead of giggles when I write about our residency experience, I shut it down. It’s like watching a sad movie- why would I subject myself to watching Old Yeller die when I have enough reasons to cry in real life?
Another reason I haven’t written much about it is out of respect for my husband’s program, his coworkers and attendings, and the dignity of what he does for a living. People trust their lives to my husband on a daily basis. For me to flippantly write about it is wrong on so many levels. Do we laugh about things that happen at work when he gets home? Yes. Should I write about it on an internet blog? Absolutely not.
So…Happy Medical New Year.
July 1st is the first day all the residents “move up” in their programs. All the newly-minted medical school graduates go from being an MD in title only, to actually putting their education to work. Were you nervous on your first day on the job? Multiply that times 100 and you have what a new intern (“Intern” refers to the first-year residents) feels like.
July 1st is also a big deal for everyone else in residency- it’s a sign that time really is moving forward, and that they are getting one step closer to finishing their training. It’s also one step closer to having their lives back. The term “resident” has been historically used for those in training who live at the hospital. You are a resident of the hospital. You live there. You don’t live at home with your family. Some general surgery programs forbade their residents from being married while in training (this was about fifty-ish years ago). Often these residents were married in secret. If you know a surgeon who is of advanced years, give their wife a hug. They’ve been through a lot. Thanks to some recent work-hour laws, residents have an easier (I giggle ironically as I write the word “easier”) time balancing work and their personal lives compared to those who went before them. It’s still extremely difficult, though: due to the hands-on nature of general surgery and orthopedic surgery, if you’re not in the operating room, you’re not learning. And the only thing more predictable than death or taxes is that you’re going to get sick on the weekend, so that’s usually the busiest time, especially for ER/trauma.
When I got married, my husband was on night float, so outside of our honeymoon, we had three nights together the first five weeks we were married. He worked every single holiday the first year we were married. He left at 6 pm on Christmas Eve and got home at 6 pm Christmas Day. He worked Easter Sunday and our birthday weekend (our birthdays are a day a part). My extended family has seen him about four times in the six years we have been together (that includes our wedding); if he’s not working on a holiday, there is a 95% chance he’s schedule to work the day before or the day after, so we can’t travel anywhere.
Residents (and almost all doctors, for that matter) can’t call in sick. Often-times residents will hook themselves up to an IV to keep from being dehydrated. One of my husband’s co-residents operated fourteen hours the day before she delivered her baby. The first few years of my husband’s residency, my husband ate one meal a day. He lost over ten pounds in two weeks during one particularly time-consuming rotation. He has gone months without taking a day off. The first few years of being married, we really struggled forming friendships with any couples outside of the medical community, because it’s hard to schedule a get together when you don’t know if he’ll be home until he actually walks in the door, and even then, he may be called back to work for an emergency surgery. When I was pregnant with Gracie, we had five people on back up call in case I went into labor when he was scrubbed in for surgery- depending on the case, he wouldn’t be able to leave and take me to the hospital across town.
So maybe you see why I get a little weepy when I think about residency. I see the man that I love being pushed to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion for years. I am alone, a lot. And while I feel the love my husband has for me every second of the day, I know that when he’s in the operating room, the only person in the world that matters to him is his patient.
But the tears also come from joy. Each hardship has taught us something that we would not have learned if things had been easy.
Because of the insane work hours, my husband and I have learned to maximize our time together, and to enjoy the mundane things in life. One of my favorite memories of the second year we were married was to be able to go to the grocery store together. Holidays have now become more about the people that we are with, and not about what day we celebrate.
Because of the financial strain of residency, I have been learning that “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted ox with hatred” (Proverbs 15:17). If I don’t focus on the spiritual growth of myself and my family, and learn to be content with our current circumstances, all the big houses or nice cars in the world won’t make me happy.
Because of the (very true) reputation general surgery has for being an incredible difficult program, we have been lifted up in prayer by more people than I will ever know. After a particularly hard week, a couple from my home church in AL wrote us a kind, encouraging, and compassionate letter (enclosed with a medical-themed necktie). Every time I see my husband where that tie, I am reminded that we are never alone.
Because of the intense work environment, my husband has developed a deep bond with his fellow residents that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Each resident comes from a completely different walk of life, and yet they are deeply connected from their shared experiences. They have fought to keep people alive; they’ve saved lives and lost them. It’s been said that the trauma coming through the doors of the main hospital in our city is exactly like a combat zone, minus the shrapnel. My husband and his fellow residents have fought a war together.
Also, because of the intense work environment, my husband has had the blessing to work under some of the strongest, most compassionate men and women I have ever met. The general surgery culture is very harsh; it’s not a normal day if a resident hasn’t been verbally assaulted by an attending physician. It takes a great deal of character and strength for an attending to go against the grain and be kind to their residents; they have my eternal gratitude for how they have treated my husband. I prayed for years that my husband would be able to work for an attending who conducted himself with gentleness and kindness, and it has been one of my greatest joys to see this answered.
Tomorrow is July 1st. No fireworks. Just another long day at work. I wrote this to give myself some perspective, because all I want is for this final year of residency to fly by. But just as the late Elisabeth Elliot said, “Let not our longing slay our appetite for living”. The days are going to be long, but I hope the weeks and months go by quickly.
And you know what? I think I’ll actually publish this for once, so you’ll get to read it. Happy Medical New Year, everyone.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
(I try to sing to Gracie every night (“try” is the key word). This verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness was what I sang to her when her daddy was working overnights at the trauma center)