“My Husband Qualifies for Sainthood”: Balancing Relationships Through Residency Training

medical family

By: Brenessa Lindeman, MD, MEHP, fellow, endocrine surgery, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

“My husband qualifies for sainthood.” Anyone that has ever met me and inquired about my life outside of the nearly all-encompassing sphere that is residency training has very likely heard this phrase roll off my tongue. While it is spoken in a lighthearted manner, it belies the seriousness with which I feel this sentiment. My spouse (who is a professional in a field outside of medicine) did not choose this career path and has occasionally struggled to understand why I chose to endure the seemingly never-ending years of sleepless nights, hopelessly inaccurate estimates of when I might leave the hospital, unbreakable tethering to my pager and smartphone, and frequent interruptions throughout dinner and our shared night’s sleep.

Yet, despite my inability to fully explain the magnitude of why it is important to me, he did endure all of these things, and countless more—particularly after we embarked on the journey of parenthood. He did so willingly and graciously, and I truly believe that it is only because he did that I felt so ready and able to weather the up and down storms of a resident physician’s life. His unwavering support allowed me to be free from worry about the laundry, each month’s bills, or what we might eat for our next meal, and instead focus on honing my diagnostic acumen of an acute abdomen, refining technical skills for complex procedures, and struggling to coach and mentor my more junior counterparts.

For all of this, and so much more, there is no individual that merits higher status in my life than him. And that is why I read the article by Law et al with so much interest. They have helped bring light to the inextricable and exceptionally important support networks that all of us rely on—but also how particularly important and precariously strained they can become during the period in which a newly-minted physician is molded and refined. I found myself unconsciously nodding along reading their finding that residents worked to manage others’ expectations about their relationships (only my husband can tell you whether I was successful in this endeavor), as well as how we focus our efforts on the most valued relationships, letting “more distant or less-cherished relationships” wither by the wayside. I am certainly guilty of this.

But as I reflect, I’m not certain that guilt is the emotion that I should be feeling. Having emerged on the other side of residency training, I feel privileged to have been bestowed with the professional identity I worked so hard to develop, and I know that my patients deserve no less than a physician fully dedicated to their care and well-being, which at times requires my full attention and presence long after I had intended to go home. Indeed, the hierarchy of patients’, family members’, and personal needs is a delicate and continually shifting balance, but it is certainly one worthy of navigating. As I look toward the future, I am hopeful that the findings of Law et al, combined with those of the many others they cite, will help inspire structural changes in our training programs to optimize residents’ abilities to navigate this balance.

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