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Women in Medicine: Work Life Balance

In honor of Women’s History Month, ACP members Kimberly Bates, MD, FACP, Cecily Peterson, MC USA, FACP, and Janis Blair, MD, shared with us their experience, insight and wisdom of what it means to be a physician, wife, and mother all at once. Between them they have served in the U.S. Army, survived breast cancer twice, and led the next generation of female physicians in their careers. They are as diverse as they are the same, but all are an example of how female physicians can enjoy a balanced, fulfilling life without compromising their professional careers.

Why “No” Means “Yes”
Career Day in 1988 at Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Ohio may have passed without much consequence for many of her fellow students, but not for Kimberly Bates, who made the decision to become a doctor. Fast forward 21 years, and the petite Dr. Bates, still in the Columbus area, has accomplished that goal and so much more. She is a wife, a mother of a two and a half-year-old son who she describes as “opinionated,” an internist, a pediatrician, and a medical director of an HIV clinic. She is also a survivor of breast cancer, diagnosed in her third year of residency, and again in January 2008. Instead of dwelling on the negative, however, Dr. Bates turned the experience to her advantage. “It made me a better physician,” she explains. “Being the patient for once taught me the true meaning of empathy. It has changed the way I talk to patients.” Something else that has helped her become a better physician she says is learning how to say no. “It can be tough to say no as a woman,” she says, “because you feel as though it might counteract all of your efforts to move up the academic ladder, and you also don’t want to feel like you are asking too much, but it’s the right thing to do.” After deciding to make schedule changes and cut back on administrative work a few years ago, Dr. Bates says she knows for a fact that it was the right decision. “People who are happy in their professional lives are happy in their personal lives,” she says.

Dr. Janis Blair, a seasoned internist and infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, agrees. After running herself nearly ragged as one of two partners in a two-physician practice earlier in her career, her decision to cut back hours proved to be the right move. Now at Mayo, she puts in a full day consulting with patients on infectious disease cases and working with colleagues, but the workload still allows her time to lead a well-rounded existence. For example, before she even sets foot in the hospital each day, she has gone for a swim and driven her two teenage boys to school. She eats dinner with her family every night—no exceptions. It is a full and demanding life to be sure—she hits the sheets at 9:30 to start the whole thing over again the next day—but it’s exactly the life she wants to lead. “My kids make fun of me because I go to bed earlier than they do!” she jokes, “but it is a marathon, not a sprint. The decision to rearrange and prioritize has served me well and helped me balance things.”

The Unlikely Advisor
For Dr. Peterson of Olympia, Washington, the need for change came after she had her second child. As a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army (from which she is recently separated), she was used to pushing herself, but knew something needed to give. “You have to take a long look at who you are and what your strengths are,” she says. “At the time, I was one of those people who put everything before home life. I had to be honest with myself.” She was unsure how to go about it. Ironically, she learned how to do it not from another woman, but from her own husband, also in the Army and an urologist. Dr. Peterson says he is a model of efficiency. “He conducts meetings standing up.” But more than that she says, he is not afraid to ask for what he needs. “I learned from my husband that it is reasonable to ask,” she says. “He’s not afraid to say ‘I need this’ and be insistent on it and state it as a fact.” She took her husband’s advice when she moved into hospital medicine, asking for limitations in administrative work and negotiating for personal time. Her advice for women physicians unsure about how to approach asking for maternity leave is to be up front. “You can get further in negotiations when you talk about your own strengths and weaknesses,” she explains. “When I got my current job I said at the outset ‘this is what I need to be the most effective doctor for you. If you give me “x,” I will be more effective.’”

Dr. Bates learned this important lesson from her own boss. “My boss is a wonderful female physician who is really at the top of her game,” she says. “At one point she said to me ‘tell me everything you’re doing.’ After I finished, she said, ‘now tell me how you are going to move some of it off your plate so you have more time for what’s important to you both professionally and personally.’ I still think about that conversation a lot,” Dr. Bates continues. “She’s someone I respect, so it was very helpful for me.”

Her advice to younger women is similar to Dr. Peterson’s. “Decide what is non- negotiable to you and speak to that,” she recommends. “For me, it is putting my son to bed every night. I also enjoy my work with the HIV clinic very much, and wanted to make room for that. If I didn’t do these things I would be very unhappy. So I made some changes so I could do them, and it’s been worth it.”

Dog and Pony Show
At the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Blair is one of four women who mentor groups of younger colleagues on professional advancement topics such as medical publishing or starting a career in research. Often times the meetings start out with other topics, as she explains. “It’s our own little dog and pony show,” she jokes, “each meeting always starts out with a little therapy—we’re talking about kids, husbands, whatever crisis has popped up during the week.” The purpose of the mentoring groups, she says, is to lend a helping hand to other women physicians looking to advance in their careers. For example, one group focuses on grant writing. She helps the women when they get into trouble, whether it is writing block or something on a personal level. Slowly but surely, the women have begun to advance. “By the time we’ve overseen a group for a year or two, they understand what it takes to get beyond the instructor level to assistant professor.” The groups have been so successful that the Mayo Chairman of the Board has allotted time for the mentors to meet, and the meetings benefit the women in more ways than one. “When someone is out on maternity leave or for other family or personal related things, others will pick up for them and the group stays motivated,” explains Dr. Blair. “There’s always someone who can carry the group. It has really turned out to be a great concept and is hugely supportive.”

A Full Life
In different jobs, in different parts of the country, at different stages in their careers, Drs. Bates, Peterson and Blair have more in common than meets the eye, mainly, the satisfaction of knowing they have made the right choices along the way. “I am doing things now that I never had anticipated doing because of the career path I chose,” says Dr. Bates. “I teach, I run a clinic…and as time goes on I know I will do something else. I’ve had incredible flexibility.” Dr. Blair says she is most fulfilled when she feels she is doing her best to fulfill her purpose in life, which she says is ministering to others. Her deep faith motivates her. “Sometimes when you get so busy, you can forget the main thing…I try to remind myself that each patient I come in contact with is someone who needs to be listened to and cared for.” The fun-loving Dr. Peterson derives her fulfillment from work and family as well, but also from the different activities in her life—a part time job as a fitness instructor at a YMCA, volunteering at her church, having lunch with girlfriends. She says being an internist has given her the opportunity to do it all. “I love to practice medicine,” she says. “It’s part of the fun of my life!”

Check out previous articles as physicians share what motivated them to become physicians as well as why they chose their particular type of practice.

Back to March 2009 Issue of IMpact

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