Serving those who serve for us

Each year Medical Economics holds a physician writing contest where it asks physicians to write a short essay on a particular topic. This year’s topic was “How I achieve work-life balance as a physician” and we at were pleased to sponsor this year’s contest.

We previously posted links to the winning essays but felt that there were others in the contest that shared good messages on work-life balance so we will be sharing some of them here. This is the second post we are sharing. Read the first one here.

The following essay comes from Roberta Berrien, M.D., M.Sc.

I am old and I have been a physician for a very long time. I applied to medical school four years after having graduated from college. Some schools would not accept my application because I was too old (26!). My chances of being accepted were decreased not only because I was old,  but also because I was a woman. And I had a child. Somehow, though, I did get into med school and I did finish with my class (did okay too-AOA). When I applied for a residency position, one program director asked me to assure him I would not be having more children (I was pregnant at the time and looked it). I knew I could not take any time off between medical school and residency even though my son was 6 weeks old when I started internship because “it was just not done”–unheard of in fact–and I was fearful that I would not get a residency position if I took time off.

So my life/work balance was a little tilted toward work. I did my job the way all the other people (men) in my program did–working long days and longer nights and even longer weekends: 3 days in a row where you didn’t go home. My husband would bring the kids to see me at the hospital so we could have a few minutes together.

After residency I was fortunate enough to start a private internal medicine practice with a fellow resident. It was wonderful, yet the work/life balance still tilted toward work: nights in the ICU, called in on Christmas Day. But I had a partner who appreciated his family time as much as I did, which allowed us to each take a full day in the week to be home and to have full coverage–time to spend on class trips or school programs. Yet work days were long and on-call a burden. This was pre-cell phone and I can remember well my teenagers being very aggravated with me as I shooed them off the phone so I could answer a page. I missed my share of school events and after-school sports.

I have worked my whole life. My children are grown now and I have grandchildren. I still work and I love my work as a physician, but I am finally in a position to seek better balance in that work/life equation. Now I am a locum for the VA and have been for the past year. I have taken several different assignments and they have all been wonderful. Even more wonderful is the opportunity to take time off between assignments–to visit with the grandchildren in Massachusetts, to travel with the grandchildren from North Carolina, and to do some traveling with my husband.

I was not sure how I would feel about short-term assignments: after all, I am a primary-care physician who has always valued long-term relationships with patients and families. As it turns out, the rewards are still there. My first locum assignment was in Alabama at the VA clinic at Fort Rucker. I was housed on base. For a person with little connection to the military most of her life it was an opportunity to learn more about a way of life with which I was completely unfamiliar. The base was beautiful, and access to the trails and facilities was a plus. But more important, living in proximity to the military families and to international soldiers who are invited to the US for training gave me a new respect for the men and women who serve and for the families that support them. My patients were so grateful to have visits with me despite the fact that they knew we might meet only once or twice. They so much appreciated my filling in and helping when they knew the clinic was understaffed.

For my next assignment, several months later, I chose to be at a VA clinic on Cape Cod just a few miles from my home. Again the staff and the patients could not have been more supportive or grateful to have me help out. My latest assignment came right after finishing in Massachusetts.  I am in New Orleans now and will be for a total of six months. It is a great city to live in, and my after-work time is spent enjoying an incredibly diverse city with wonderful food, music, and ambiance.

My late-in-life connection with the VA is not entirely accidental: I was drawn to it after my son joined the Army National Guard, a choice not made by many middle- and upper-class citizens. It inspired me to serve in my own way by providing as good health care as I could to those who have served: from WWII to Korea to Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq. Meeting these men and women has been a privilege and I am grateful to be able to do this work.

My choice to work as a locum has now given me the freedom to take off time this year to help my son’s family as he faces deployment and danger. I will finish my assignment in New Orleans just in time for my husband and me to move near to our grandchildren and help the three boys adjust to their dad being away. It is a gift to be able to do this and to know that I can resume work again when the time is right.

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