The Circumstances of My Life

Yesterday for the first time in months, an indisputable ability to do good work. And yet wrote only the first page. Again I realize that everything written down bit by bit rather than all at once in the course of the larger part is inferior, and that the circumstaces of my life condemn me to this inferiority.      – Franz Kafka

People often wonder aloud how I balance my career as a surgeon, my writing and being a mother of two.

I’ll be honest: I don’t.

I’ve gotten used to living life as triage. There’s about as much balance in my life as there was on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. Multitasking has become an art. Twice a day I pump in between cases, praying that an unsuspecting male nurse won’t walk in on me, putting in my doctors orders and talking on the phone at the same time; at home I check e-mail, Tweet and blog while nursing and listening to books on tape.

In my last year of residency, shortly after the birth of my first child, I came to terms with the idea that I will never be Chief of surgery at a major academic medical center, which is okay by me, as the thought of writing another research paper makes me want to vomit. To an extent, I’ve come to accept that I will never be the most prolific writer in the world – I would never want to sacrifice my family or professional life because I know that both of these inform my writing and provide it with richness and insight.

The idea of being less than a great mother, however, is completely unpalatable. My book was conceived out of the fear that my daughter would hate me for being a doctor and not being home all the time, for goodness’ sake! In my a chief resident year, I chose to have lighter OR days so I can finish work at a reasonable hour, and told myself that I was not responsible for the pedestrians I run over while driving out of the hospital parking lot. In my precious few hours at home, it was hard – so hard – to do anything writing-related while my daughter was awake. So I wrote while the baby napped, and spend some of her waking hours reading her YA fiction out loud (I sometimes found myself having to gloss over racy parts. She can read the unexpurgated version once she’s reached puberty).

It goes without saying that things fall through the cracks. Little things like personal hygeine and cooking at home. At one point, I wore the same scrubs to work for two weeks in a row. Lean Pockets, a faux food if there ever was one, now seems like a gourmet lunch. When I write a blog entry I have to force myself to post it so I don’t spend time obsessing over every line.

The strange thing is, I don’t think I’d want my life any other way. Work, love and art. The latter two are non-negotiable, but there have been days when the former just seems like a hassle. There are some days when I wonder if I’m really cut out for medicine. Have I been working my butt off for the past decade trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? In my first year out of residency I was known as the “sensitive” intern – the one who hated pushing patients out of the hospital before they were ready. The one who, God forbid, actually bothered to give pain medications before minor procedures. The one who cried sometimes when taking care of terminally ill cancer patients.

There are countless ways in which I am unsuited for medicine. The early hours, for one: I pretty much hate myself every morning from 5:30-6:00, and have had two or three near-misses on the highway. The culture, for another: The pervasive egotism and the oppressively hierarchical pecking order are just not compatible with my personal happiness. Being a doctor has the potential to suck on so many levels. There are always needy patients, bitchy co-workers, and nasty, ugly tumors that resist being cut out. And it’s hard, man. People can die. It’s one of the hardest things in the world, both mentally and emotionally.

At the same time, there are countless ways in which I am perfectly suited for medicine – and surgery, specifically. I am at heart a social person. Despite my inclination to hide myself in books, I’m an extrovert in the truest sense: people energize me. I may be dead tired, my back might be aching and I might be hating the idea of clinic. But when I go into a patient’s room, I can’t help but want to have a connection with that person.

To me, one of the hardest things about the writing life is the isolation of the process. In the end it’s just you and the page. When I graduated from college I realized that my internal well wasn’t deep enough to sustain me through the loneliness of being a writer… so I became a doctor.

This is just as well; I am beginning to realize that my fundamental impatience is incompatible with the publishing world’s pace, which resembles that of a paralyzed tortoise. My temperament is perfect, however, for surgery. I like to get things done – and now. None of this dickering around waiting to see if chemotherapy shrinks a tumor or radiation therapy kills it… take the offending organ out, and the person is cured, most of the time. If the process of getting a book published is a lesson in delayed gratification, surgery is all about immediate satisfaction. And I’ll be honest with you here, the best reason to be a surgeon is that there is nothing in the world as satisfying as draining an abscess. It’s a worldly pleasure that’s the medical equivalent to popping bubble wrap. Except pus is involved.

So here I am with my head in one world, my hands in another and my heart in a third, struggling mightily day after day to keep myself together. Would I ever want my life any other way?

The answer, for now, is “No.”

6 thoughts on “The Circumstances of My Life

  1. I hear you about the multi-tasking! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked recently, “When do you sleep?” Sometimes, I don’t think I get enough.

    As for the day job — boy do I get understand you there, too. There are many, many things I am growing to hate about the teaching profession — most of which stem from government interference and community apathy. However, there continue to be those sublime moments with children, when I know I’m making a difference, that epitomize what the teaching profession is SUPPOSED to be.

    Best of luck to you. In spite of all the “awe” I get for writing and teaching full time, I didn’t produce any writing during the years I had infants and toddlers in the house.

  2. Hi, Dianne! I know that your students must get soooo much from you as a teacher, and am glad that SOMEONE cares about their education. But you’re right that sometimes all the good you do gets lost in the noise.

    There just need to be more hours in the day. Or how about an extra eighth day in the week that we can devote specifically to writing? 🙂


  3. Dr. Gregorio:

    I am simultaneously awed, moved, and inspired by reading about you. Please, please, do not give up your surgical practice. As someone who has undergone several major surgeries, I understand well your observations about egotism among your colleagues–all the more reason to stay in the profession. I look forward to reading your books and your posts.


  4. Doc:
    Great seeing you today – and thanks for the good news. I had no idea you loved to write (as do I), and I DO plan on reading “None of the Above”. For anyone reading this comment, it’s pretty rare to be able to say that “XXX saved my life”. I can honestly say that you have saved my life twice, and your “best work” with me was not “curing” my kidney cancer – which was pretty damn good work! I get such strange memories of all I’ve been through when we meet in your office for our semi-annual followups, but it mostly reminds me how fortunate I am to have “chosen” you as my urologist 4 years ago. I shudder to think where I’d be today if I had met with a different doctor. I look forward to our next visit in a year, where I hope to get equally good news as I did today, and maybe we can spend a few minutes discussing your book. Thanks for EVERYTHING…

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