The Best of Both Worlds
I met my husband my second day on campus at Northwestern University, 1991. He was one year ahead of me; I was asking him which book to buy for Introduction to Sociology. He was an established molecular biology major, having years of laboratory research experience behind him already. I, too, decided to major in biology, but with a physiology concentration. The micro and the macro--that may be us in a nutshell: Both amazed and awed by the mysterious and yet completely logical ways a body works—the ultimate integrated system—but from opposite ends of the spectrum.We both did our medical training at the University of Chicago, a well-respected mecca of hard core basic science. All that research and discovery of the most minute and fundamentally important mechanisms of disease—much of it at the molecular level—still excites and motivates him, and leaves me positively lethargic. Show me how a person’s health is transformed through his relationships, thoughts, and beliefs, though—show me examples of how the mind and body are connected in ways we cannot measure—now that seizes my attention!
Today my husband specializes in orthopaedic tumor and joint replacement, and I do primary care in an integrative medicine practice. We are opposites in many ways. Much of his professional world consists of binary decision making: operate or not, the experiment proved the hypothesis or not. For me, it may be more about exploring all the options and approaches for any particular problem, withholding judgment, and trying one approach at a time. Personally, he likes to be alone; I love people, the more the better! He makes decisions based largely on fact and devoid of emotions, whereas my decision trees are firmly rooted in how I feel about the issue at hand. I seek color, texture, and meaning in everything around me; his needs are much more pragmatic, functional, and stoic. And yet, much of what we initially see as contrasting and opposed turns out to be, in every sense of the word, complementary. For the most part, we are each able to balance objective data with empathic information when making both professional and personal decisions. But when my emotions run high and objective data look fuzzy, he points out the practical implications of my choices. When he must make decisions that impact relationships, I can help him identify the core values that allow him to settle on one side of an issue with confidence. When both people in a relationship are free to be fully themselves, without fear of judgment or ridicule, their differences, and respective strengths, are what hold each other up.
The most interesting conversations we have about work revolve around teaching and relationships with colleagues. As a surgeon, his primary charge is to prepare his trainees to be technically excellent in the operating room, to make patient care decisions and carry them out with confidence and resolve. Nobody wants a wishy-washy surgeon! My main focus in teaching is to foster empathy, to role model excellent listening and counseling skills, and to show students that no matter what specialty they choose, their patients will always need to feel seen, heard, understood, and cared for. In primary care, the old saying, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” has explicit meaning. I like to think that because of me, my husband is more mindful of the interpersonal skills he models for his residents and students. And because of him, I try always to incorporate evidence, guidelines, and concrete, goal-oriented rationale in my decision making with patients. Intentionally or not, we rub off on each other, I think for the better.
Tension between surgeons and non-surgeons is a well known and accepted fact of life in medicine. There are simply fundamental differences between the so-called cognitive and procedural fields. Stereotypes peg internists as ruminating and indecisive, and orthopaedists as dull-witted, mallet-wielding carpenters. This oppositional culture can be insidious. In our ‘mixed’ marriage, we bridge this gap happily and with minimal roadblocks. In the end, I hope it all translates to better patient care. For us, at least, it makes for interesting dinner conversation and a shared love for our work. And I would not have it any other way.