Love on call: The risks and benefits of two doctors being in a relationship
Alisha: I met David at a bar while we were out with some mutual friends. I had just started my first year of residency in obstetrics and gynecology. I hadn’t planned to date someone in medicine, but I was drawn to David’s kindness, charisma, and killer dance moves. We survived his residency match, and now we’re two Toronto residents trying to make our relationship work. I’ve been asked if having my boyfriend working at the same hospital is anything like Grey’s Anatomy. Rest assured, it’s not. There’s nothing sexy about a call room.
David: I remember telling a friend about Alisha a few weeks after we met. He said: “Dude, are you sure it’s a good idea to be dating someone in medicine?” I just sort of laughed it off. “No, it’s a terrible idea!” I didn’t have the courage to tell him at the time, but I knew exactly how it was going to go. I couldn’t see myself with anyone else.
Two years later, we are living together in a 640-square-foot apartment that is a short walk from all the downtown hospitals. We have at least two and four years left in our training programs, respectively. David’s internal medicine subspecialty match is on the horizon, which could mean he has to move across the country to complete a fellowship, and Alisha is already feeling the stress of facing a competitive job market in obstetrics and gynecology. Many of our friends and colleagues are in a similar situation.
Let’s take a look at the numbers: A survey published by the Canadian Medical Association last year reported resident burnout rates as high as 38 percent and a positive depression screen rate as high as 48 percent. A large survey of surgeons in the U.S. found that those who had a physician spouse were more likely to report conflict between work and home life and feel that their career didn’t leave enough time for family. This means that at any given time, one of the two of us is likely to be feeling the forces of burnout. With all this in mind, we can’t help but wonder what this means for the future of our relationship.
A: It was 2 a.m. and we were both on call at Sunnybrook. Despite living together, we hadn’t seen each other in six days. I couldn’t get away from the labour floor, but David came to bring me a carton of chocolate milk. I gave him a piece of gum and a hug, and then he went back to his patients in the emergency department.
D: On that night I was the resident on call managing the medicine ward and emergency consults. The pace began to quicken and my patients got sicker. I was fighting off the familiar feeling of imposter syndrome. Do I really have what it takes? What I needed was someone who truly understood that feeling deep in your gut when you are overwhelmed and feel like you don’t belong. With a hug and a few words from Alisha, I was ready to face the rest of my night.
The life of a resident is tough. Long work hours, 26-hour call shifts, the stress of constantly being evaluated by our colleagues, staff, and patients, and the raw emotion associated with our work lives weighs on us daily. Not surprisingly, that pressure can carry over into our personal lives, especially considering each of those stressors is now multiplied by two.
A: I came home one Wednesday evening after a gruelling day on labour and delivery. I was on an exhausting rotation and I ended my day delivering a stillborn. David had spent his morning delivering a cancer diagnosis and his afternoon discussing goals of care with a dying patient’s family. Who “wins” in this situation? Did I have the harder day? Or does he get to go first, spill his emotions, and lean on me to be his support? Being the earpiece, the rock, the unconditional support, takes emotional energy and reserve. By 6 or 7 p.m., my reserve is often depleted. And with little reserve, sometimes I fall short of what my partner needs.
D: In a perfect world I would be able to gauge Alisha’s needs in comparison to my own, but it’s hard to do when I’m mentally and physically exhausted. I try to summon any emotional intelligence I have left to carefully calculate whether now is the time to put Alisha ahead of myself. Of course, I am flawed. The urge to say, “Hey, what about me?” constantly leans on my back.
There is no better person to understand the valleys of medicine than someone who has just climbed out of one themselves. Ultimately, when we are at our lows, commiserating with one of the few people in the world going through the exact same thing offers a comfort that can’t be found anywhere else.
It can be easy to fixate on our shortcomings and minimize our accomplishments. When one of us receives harsh feedback from a staff or feels overwhelmed by the volume of work, the other one of us will remind them that they successfully managed 23 new consults in one call shift or delivered 10 babies overnight and how proud they are. Having a partner in medicine also means having someone to celebrate your daily triumphs, which is necessary to surviving residency.
A: I want to build a life that somehow balances being a doctor, a partner, and some day a mother. I fear I will have to make sacrifices in one or more of those areas, and it’s just not clear which one.
D: I struggle with the thought of having to ask Alisha to leave her family and friends behind to join me in another city. I know how important those support systems are to her, and she has aspirations as much as I do.
It truly takes a village to keep a resident afloat. We spend time with our friends outside of medicine who keep us grounded and remind us there is a world beyond the walls of the hospital. We have had crises where our partner may be emotionally or physically unable to be our sole support. In these moments, our parents, siblings, and closest friends allow us the space to rant, debrief, and break down. At times, the state of our mental health has meant needing to seek advice from professional counsellors.
Not surprisingly, we are both hoping to build our careers close to this supportive community. But that’s the long term. In the short term, we might wind up completing our training in different cities at the same time we hope to be starting a family. We’re both passionate about our careers and we’ve found a loving, supportive partner who’s our greatest cheerleader and best friend. We know that sacrifices will need to be made in our careers or family life. Whose career gets put on hold? Who will take on the bulk of child care duties? It can be a source of conflict and tension, but we’re already having these discussions because we have to. The survival of our relationship depends on it.
David Dorian is a second-year internal medicine resident at the University of Toronto.
Alisha Olsthoorn is a third-year obstetrics and gynecology resident at the University of Toronto.