“I think we should separate,” my husband whispered over the phone line. All at once, everything stopped. Suddenly I could see the fibers of the life I wanted splitting apart, threatening my very identity, character, and values. In the weeks that followed, I analyzed the situation from various angles, and I finally came to the point at which I asked myself, “What is the most important thing in my life, and what will I think when I look back 50 years from now?” It was at that moment that I almost walked away from my surgical training.
I embarked on my internship filled with unabashed enthusiasm for taking care of patients and for operating. Two years left me exhausted, disillusioned by the violence of surgical training—from the difficult personalities to the ignominious position of residents in the hospital food chain—with only the comfort of knowing that it used to be worse. As a new mother and wife, my responsibilities on the home front were taking more focused time and energy than I had at any given time, and sleepless nights at work combined with sleepless nights at home meant I barely survived, let alone thrived, as I had once envisioned.
The saving grace of the experience was the satisfaction and joy I found in caring for patients, performing procedures, and managing diseases. Every day in our small, uncomely community hospital, I found myself motivated, engaged, desiring to improve, learn, and grow. The opportunity to relieve pain, to restore life, and to be with patients and their families at their moment of crisis, is more meaningful and fulfilling than I ever imagined prior to residency. My loving, sensitive husband was burdened with the strain and fatigue of residency but without the rewards I reaped in the work.
I was face to face with the decision to lay down my professional desires instead of losing my marriage. Although I love surgery deeply, I realized my commitment to love my husband and the need to protect my family were still my greatest priority. I’d heard that marriage is hard work, but I never would have believed my marriage would end my training in surgery.
My husband’s response to my determination to resign was visceral—he took my arm, looked straight into my eyes and said, “No! I won’t let you do that.” By revealing my commitment to our marriage, his was reignited. It wasn’t easy. As much as I gave at the hospital, I learned I had to pour just as much into my marriage to make any of it work. I’ve realized I will be satisfied with my surgical career in the long run if my husband comes through it with me, but my marriage will also suffer immeasurably if I sacrifice my deepest ambitions.
When I thought I was finished, both personally and professionally, I found greater resources deep inside to propel me forward. Surgery and residency taught me I have not yet found the limits to my capacity, and that is truly a gift.