Chief Complaint: Fatigue

During one of my last days at work before maternity leave, an older male patient came to see me complaining of fatigue.  During the appointment, he looked at me and said, “Well, I guess it [the feeling of tiredness] could be all related to being a parent.  You see, I have a 1.5-year-old at home.  (looking pointedly at my belly)  You’ll understand.  You’ll get there.  Soon you will see what I mean.”

I smiled and politely nodded.  I don’t know why, but at that moment, I consciously chose not to reveal the fact that I was already 38 weeks pregnant and mother to a 4 year old and a 2 year old.   Perhaps I should’ve been flattered by his assumption that I looked so young that I couldn’t possibly have any previous experience with children.  Perhaps I should’ve been pleased that he didn’t think I look so humongous that I was going to go into labor the next day.

But something about his comment was offensive to me.  It was as if he was making a blanket statement about parenthood that he thought I was too naive to understand. What I really wanted to say in response to him was (in cranky 9-month-pregnant sarcasm), “No, really?  I don’t understand what you mean.  I’ve NEVER felt that tired.  Tired?  I don’t even know what that means.”

In reality, I think that becoming a parent is the most tiring “job” I’ve ever experienced.  Even compared to the most horrific shifts I had in the ICU as an intern, or the never-ending-pager-beeping-sleepless-night while on-call on the oncology ward, those first few days of motherhood still stand out clearly in my mind as the moments when I felt like I really couldn’t function anymore, that without warning my zombie eyelids could not stay open despite my best efforts, that my jelly-like legs and arms would collapse if I could even manage to stumble my way onto the couch.

Even though I never intended for it to be this way, being in medicine has trained me to be a better mother.  I think back to when I was a 3rd year medical student rotating on surgery and staying up all night worrying about/taking care of a fragile liver transplant patient.  I remember being an overwhelmed scared intern on nightfloat dealing with a narcotic-seeking patient who was throwing a tantrum and screaming obscenities at me.  I remember sitting down at the nurses station at 3:30 AM in between admissions, reviewing orders that the intern had written and perusing the medical chart to make sure everything was ready for morning rounds.   Without knowing it at the time, each one of these experiences has really helped me become a better mother, to put others’ needs in front of my desire to just crawl back to bed.

Conversely, being a parent has also helped me become a better physician.  I’ve definitely developed a more emotional bond with my patients since I’ve had children, I’ve been able to share tears and funny stories with strangers in a way that I never would’ve open myself to before being a mother in medicine.  I’ve found it easier as a parent to take a step back from potentially angry interactions and remind myself, “Ok, this patient is just acting this way because they don’t feel well and they want help. (AKA why are you whining?)”   And whether or not this is a good thing, I’ve also developed a more keen sense of “What does this patient REALLY want? Are they really just trying to spin a BS sob-story? “.

I didn’t realized until recently how much these tiring experiences as both a mother and a physician have really shaped and changed my outlook on life.  I’m proud to call myself a mother-in-medicine.

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