by Kathleen Romanowski, MD, MAS, FACS
I did not go into medical school planning to be a surgeon. I thought that I was going to be a pediatrician, maybe doing pediatric critical care. That all changed when I did my surgery rotation during third year. I fell in love with the operating room and the impact surgeons can have on the lives of their patients. Despite this, the decision to change paths and choose surgery for a career was not an easy one. I knew that I wanted a family, and one of my biggest concerns was having to miss so many holidays due to the level of commitment that surgery requires. In the end, the allure of surgery was greater than my fear of how it would change my life forever. There have certainly been sacrifices, including missed holidays, special occasions, and school events. However, through the years, I have been able to be present more than I thought I would and have learned ways to lessen the effects of my absences. Here are some of the things that have helped me navigate the holidays while being a surgeon:
- Residency is a challenging time, but it doesn’t last forever. Obviously, scheduling time off at the holidays as a resident is extremely challenging. Some years I got the holiday off that I wanted, sometimes I didn’t. That was ok. Certainly, at the time, I was disappointed, but in the end, I felt that my residency was fair in the distribution of holidays which made the disappointment easier to handle. If I am completely honest, I now could not tell you which holidays I worked and which ones I spent at home. Additionally, I always knew that residency was temporary, and (I hoped) that I would have more control over my schedule as an attending.
- Choose your partners wisely! Thankfully, attending life did live up to its promise of giving me more control over my schedule. However, when it comes to holidays, it is critical to compromise with your partners. When choosing your first job, it is important to ask about how holidays are divided and how conflicts will be resolved if two people want the same holiday off. Beyond that, your life will be much happier if you find partners who are supportive and share a mutual respect for each other. In my current group, we do not have a rigid schedule for holidays, but we are generally able to simply discuss our plans/desires and make a plan. I know that if one of us has strong feelings about which holiday we are off, we can usually make it work for that person.
- Determine what events are really important to you. For most of us in surgery, it is unlikely that we will be able to be at every event or holiday that we would ultimately like to attend. It is important to decide which events are most important to you and try to find ways to be present or to alter the event so you can be part of it. For me, the week of Christmas has always been important. My wedding anniversary, son’s birthday, and Christmas are within eight days of each other. I try every three or four years to take that entire week off as a vacation week so that I get to actively participate in all three events. The other years, I prioritize one of the three celebrations and make sure that I am not on call for that event. I try to predict which event will be most important to my family as well, even though I don’t always get it right. Last year, I assumed my son would prefer to have me home on Christmas, so I volunteered to take call the weekend before Christmas (on his birthday). He was so disappointed! Now that he is getting older, I am learning to ask him which events he really wants me at so that I can try to avoid hurt feelings.
- Be prepared to give more than you get. If there is an event/holiday that you want off, you may have to give up other things you might want to make it happen. I have taken extra days of call or two days of call in a row in order to have a particular day off. Your colleagues will come to understand and appreciate that you are willing to work for the things you want and this will engender goodwill when you make a request. I also try to be cognizant of events that are important to my colleagues. I know when my partners’ anniversaries and birthdays are (including theirs, their spouses’, and their childrens’) and try to avoid requesting time off on these days so that they can be there for their families.
- Some holidays are more easily moveable. Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays (to a certain extent), and Thanksgiving all come to mind as holidays for which the sentiment being celebrated is more important than the actual date they are celebrated. For my family, this means celebrating some time the week before or the week after the actual date. For Thanksgiving, if we are celebrating after the actual day, we will DVR the parade and the dog show so that they can play while we start preparing dinner and then move on to Miracle on 34th Street as is our family tradition.
- Others are not, but you can find work arounds. Obviously as my son gets older, it is harder to move certain holidays. He knows when his birthday is and that Christmas falls on the 25th of December. Trick or treating is only socially appropriate on October 31st (or whatever day your hometown has deemed appropriate). For these holidays, we have had to get more creative. When I was on call on Halloween, my husband took our son trick or treating and then made a stop at the hospital to do reverse trick or treating in the resident work room. I got a chance to see my son in his costume and he got to show me all of the candy he got.
- Choose alternative dates as a family. For Christmas one year, we set up an alternative delivery date with Santa for my son so that I could be present on “Christmas” morning. My husband and I picked the date that worked best for us and that became our Christmas that year. As my son is getting older (he turned 10 this year), we are incorporating him into our decisions about when to celebrate holidays and which ones are most important for me to be there on the actual holiday.
While I was initially very worried about how much I would miss by choosing a career in surgery, that has not really been the case. I have found ways to make the holidays special both when I am able to be there and when I am not. I hope that these suggestions help you navigate the holidays during your surgical career. Many of them are interrelated and build on each other. I also want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2021.
Kathleen Romanowski, MD, FACS, is an Assistant Professor of Surgery at the University of California, Davis and Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California in the Division of Burn Surgery. She attended the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and completed her general surgery residency at University of Chicago Medical Center. She did fellowships in Burn Surgery and Surgical Critical Care at University of California, Davis and Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California. Kathleen is devoted to the care of the burn injured patient and studies disparities in care and predictors of outcomes in elderly burn patients. She is an active member of AWS and is a member of the AWS Communications Committee. You can find her on twitter at @KSRomanowski.
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