By Frances Southwick
“How tiring is residency?
When Jude and I went out to eat, I avoided ordering salad; I didn’t have the energy to chew that much.”
My name is Frances Southwick. I am a practicing family medicine physician in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I completed my medical residency two years ago, and I can’t believe my wife and I are still together.
When I was accepted to the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in 2005, my relationship with Judith was a bud; we had met only one year prior. We were just starting to trust and know one another. On a huge leap of faith, Jude left her family and friends in Greeley, Colorado for the unknown hills of Lewisburg, West Virginia. She hugged her therapist, her mom, her brother and sister, her nieces and nephews, and her best friend goodbye. She packed up her guitar (she’s a song-writer) and her cat, and off we drove.
Neither of us had any idea what we were doing.
The next eight years were the clumped chaos of medical school, then residency. For me, these were times of non-stop mental work coupled with physical and emotional fatigue. I stood for hours in surgery, spent sleepless hours answering pages in lonely call rooms, and learned, literally, to become a physician. I talk about how I was “reprogrammed,” which is not a joke (although laughing about it does seem to help). Becoming a doctor is brutal. It involves abandoning part of oneself. It takes every type of strength a person has. Jude watched me morph from a bright-eyed, artistic whippersnapper, always up for coffee and a conversation … into a disheveled, depressed indentured servant who fell asleep eating mozzarella sticks.
When I think of what Jude went through just to stay with me, my chest shrinks. Her life was transformed as a result of our relationship. She uprooted herself twice, built and re-built friendships, bought my family members’ birthday cards, put up with my sleep-deprived/empty conversations, walked the laundry to the coin-slot machine in the snow, cooked beautiful meals often uneaten, took care of herself when she had pneumonia, and patted herself on the back when she had successes in her own career. She became her own best friend while I was at the hospital. Though it killed/kills me to know and admit this, sometimes I just wasn’t there for her when she needed me.
Judith had not only the basic challenges of being partnered to a physician, but devastating loss during the training process. Her sister, father and mother all passed away during residency.
Take a moment to soak that in.
If you are a physician or family member of a physician, you might guess how much support Jude received from me during those arduous, draining, dark times. I did my best; I helped with the funerals and listened when I was around, but it was never enough. My work sometimes had to trump our relationship. I had to fly back and take call the night of Jude’s sister’s funeral.
Medical training is trying. Doctors and doctors-in-training undergo enormous stressors. These are facts. Medical training is also extremely burdensome for spouses and family members of trainees. This is a fact too often brushed aside.
In an attempt to reach out in solidarity to those in Jude’s/my position, I have recently published a book about my experience during medical training, and included snapshots of my marriage, as well. It is called Prognosis: Poor, One Doctor’s Personal Account of the Beauty and the Perils of Modern Medical Training.
One of the appendices is entitled: How Jude and I Stayed Together. I believe special attention should be given to the most cherished relationships in order to survive.
I gave all I had, and then a little more. And so did Jude.
So, here we are.
Frances Southwick, D.O. is a physician and non-fiction writer. Dr. Southwick earned her B.A. in philosophy from Colorado State University, her D.O. from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, and completed her family medicine residency training at UPMC Shadyside in Pittsburgh.
Dr. Southwick practices family medicine with special interest in Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine, psychiatry and queer health in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She teaches family medicine residents at UPMC Shadyside Hospital and co-facilitates a Balint group for University of Pittsburgh medical students. She lives with her wife Judith Avers and their beloved three gray cats.
By sharing her life experiences, she aims to give validation, hope and peace to those in similar circumstances. You can read more about Dr. Southwick here.