Where Physician and Mother Meet

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Stephanie Graff, MD Director of the Breast Program at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health
Stephanie Graff, MD Director of the Breast Program at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health

By Stephanie Graff, MD

In 2017, results of a study were published in JAMA suggesting women are better doctors than men.1 While I celebrated the acknowledgment for myself and my female physician peers, it prompted me to reflect on how my gender impacts how I practice medicine. Reflection kept bringing me back to a simple truth: my job as a mother and my job as a physician are strikingly similar. They are yin and yang, balancing and strengthening me.

I am a physician.

I am a mother.

I am constantly swinging from high to low. The highs of exhilaration, pride, and celebration are balanced by the lows of heartbreak, failed expectations, and constant worry. The paradox between good and bad is the overwhelming and defining challenge of both jobs. And between the highs and lows, each is filled with daily grind: diapers, charting, negotiating meals, haggling with prior authorizations, cleaning, setting boundaries, and overbooked schedules.

I am a cheerleader. I love cheering for my daughter as she sails down the driveway on her bicycle, brave and independent. I am buoyed by the look of pride on my son’s face when he shows me a perfect test score. I give high-fives when my patient completes a treatment they struggled with. I am renewed when I get to review a CT scan that shows a shrinking tumor.

I am a mender of broken spirits. My children turn to me with tears welling in their large, dark eyes. She pinched her fingers. He fell on the sidewalk and scraped his knee. A cruel careless word from a peer crushed his spirit. My patients cry with me, too. A new diagnosis of cancer is overwhelming her. The emotional weight of illness is dragging down his partner.

I am an educator. I teach. I teach patients to optimally manage their symptoms, their stress, their diet, their disease. I teach patients to optimally reduce their risks. I teach my children how to write their names, sound out new words, and tie their shoes. I help make complex concepts simple and understandable for patients and children. I teach how to navigate goal setting, expectations, and priorities. I try to teach resilience and determination. I encourage questions.

I am part of a larger team. I have learned how to use, support, and celebrate my team for optimal success of all involved. As a physician, I depend on the expertise of more people than I can name: nurses, pharmacists, IT, administrators, financial counselors, nutritionists, genetic counselors, physical and occupational therapists. I depend on primary care teams and other specialists. I depend on my patients’ families and friends to support them, to report concerns and questions. As a mother, I depend on my husband and our childcare provider, who each keep my delicate existence in balance. I depend on teachers and coaches and fellow moms. I depend on a carefully selected group of fellow physician moms who help me normalize this difficult duel appointment. I am eternally indebted to my team.

I am a font of wisdom. Both my children and patients perceive that I have wisdom and knowledge that I simply don’t have. Often my children’s questions have answers, long since retired from my memory. My children make me thankful for Google. Who was the tenth president of the United States? What do hedgehogs eat? What are the layers of the ocean? But sometimes my children have questions that I just can’t answer. Why are some people mean? What will happen if mommy dies? These questions are the roots of my prayers, my silent reflections. These questions keep me awake at night. My patients want answers that are esoteric. What is the best treatment for my HER2-enriched stage III breast cancer? What is the optimal strategy to screen for breast cancer with dense breast tissue? What role does the immune system play in fighting cancer? And like my children, my patients ask questions I can’t answer. Why did this happen to me? Will my cancer come back? How will I tell my children? Again, I find myself turning these questions over to prayers and silent reflection. I believe someday I will have a right answer. I lean on scientific discovery and hope for the future—a hope that is reflected back to me in the wonder that paints my children’s world.

I am a physician. I am a mother. These jobs ask the same things of me: endless empathy, sleepless nights, questions that cannot be answered, unwavering work ethic, compromise, patience, and a careful balance between boss and confidante. And I hope, in light of the evidence, that both jobs understand why I do the other. Because I am stronger as a physician mother than I ever could be if only one of those titles applied.

Originally published on ASCO Connection here; reprinted with permission.

Reference

  1. Tsugawa  Y, Jena  AB, Figueroa  JF, et al.  Comparison of hospital mortality and readmission rates for Medicare patients treated by male vs female physicians. JAMA Intern Med. 2017; 177:206-13.

Dr. Graff is the director of the Breast Program at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest and associate director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute. In addition to her role in clinical practice and clinical research, Dr. Graff stays busy as wife and mother of three.

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