Work-life Balance Harder with Patients at Home and at My Practice

March 6, 2012

In the balance between sick patients and sickness at home, physicians are trained to put work first.

I am facing a work-life balance crisis this morning. My husband threw out his back yesterday and it became progressively worse throughout the day. My only clue that he was in bad shape was an e-mail asking me to get milk on my way home. When I called to check in, he agreed that I could also pick up dinner on the way home. A passionate cook, he rarely relinquishes culinary control. That’s when I knew he was really hurting. By the time, I made it home, my husband was lying down on the living room floor with the kids running around. He had to crawl to the dinner table, much to my horror and to the kids’ delight - they thought it was hilarious to see their 6-foot, 2-inch dad on his hands and knees.

Which brings us to this morning: I’m on call today, so I really need to be at work. However, he is still crawling around, reassuring me that he’ll be fine. He can change a diaper, he claims, and our girls can make dinner. Needless to say, I’m feeling a little apprehensive about the Frank Family this morning.

I know this is a crisis being played out in numerous iterations all around the country this morning. Maybe it’s a single mom feeling sick herself but still compelled to go to work for financial reasons. It could be two working parents both with important meetings and a sick kid, trying to figure out who’s going to stay home. Or, it could be my sister and her husband. No kids yet, but two very needy dogs. My brother-in-law broke his foot, so my sister needs to balance her lengthy days as a corporate lawyer with the dog-walking duties her husband once did.

My husband is tough in a way many guys are. He’s loathe to ask for help and I’ve had to scold him multiple times this morning already for trying to do something himself that he can’t easily do. A few years ago, he kept up his stay-at-home-dad responsibilities through two weeks of the flu, reassuring me that he was fine as he shook with chills under a quilt.

I have to admit that I’m kind of tough too. I “learned” that you don’t get sick during residency - not ever. There was pretty much no illness that couldn’t be tended to from the call room and trips to the bathroom between patients. As disgusting as it sounds, I remember suppressing my need to vomit long enough to finish up with a patient before running down the hall to the nearest sink. This is what I saw modeled when I was a medical student and it was reinforced, unspoken, throughout my own training. I also learned that you take care of your own responsibilities - whether that’s call or clinic or Mrs. Roberts in room 263. Both lessons are poor ones, reinforcing an old-school view of what it means to be a doctor that benefits nobody, including the patients.

I recognize this. I would advise a colleague to stay home when they are sick or their husband is crawling around the living room floor. I would remind them that they will get the chance to help out a colleague the next time around and that we owe it to each other to support wise choices in our personal and professional balance. The advice is just too hard for me to take myself.

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