January 24, 2014, was a typical day for me, spent hurrying up and down the halls outside the operating rooms at the hospital where I was an attending anesthesiologist. I often “ran the board” or was the charge person, and I enjoyed being the facilitator. Each operation was written on a magnetic strip and we moved them around like pieces of a puzzle to get the surgeries done efficiently. I loved taking the strips down and wiping the marker off — it was neat, tidy, and methodical. For the last five years, I had spent 98 percent of my time learning and honing the trade of anesthesiology. I was a female doctor working in a primarily male-dominated field, and I was proud of fitting in as “one of the boys.”
On January 25, 2014, my life trajectory forever changed. I gave birth to our first child and as they cleaned her up on the warming table, the delivery room went silent. Rather than the cheerful congratulations I had pictured in my mind, we were told with heavy sadness that she had characteristics of Down syndrome. Devastation is as close as one word can come to describe the heart-wrenching, knife-like stabbing pain that cut through my chest. As time stood still on that delivery bed and with immense grief overwhelming my senses, I requested out loud to go back to work. I will never forget those words coming out of my mouth.
Seven weeks later, this is exactly what I did. I was a fully functioning and capable anesthesiologist at the hospital and a lost woman in all other aspects of my life. I was terrified to face my fear and the unknown of parenting a child with Down syndrome. My husband, a surgeon, grieved for a day and came back after speaking to a family with a child with Down syndrome and accepted the diagnosis and her.
On the other hand, I adamantly refused to believe this could be our truth. For over a year, I found my only comfort at work, where thanks to the intense focus required and high-paced environment, I could forget about my reality at home and lessen the pain I felt inside.
My spirit was broken. I knew that something needed to change, but I only observed and knew one path, and I had large student loans to pay back. When my group lost the contract to provide anesthesia services, I was ecstatic to find that the new group taking over had part-time options. I had no clue what I would do with it, but I was given the gift of time.
After 15 months of working full-time, I had a new three-day-a-week schedule. I began to explore and process what I had been through with Sidney’s delivery. I started seeing a therapist, working through my grief, and envisioning our future with more children. I went to work on myself — for me, for my spouse, and for our family. I also connected with another part-time female anesthesiologist, who changed my life by being a mentor and friend to me. I was no longer alone in medicine, and I felt supported in designing a career that worked for my family.
It has been a little over eight years since Sidney’s birthday. I look back at that day with gratitude. The gifts of reflection and intentional living continue to fill our life with abundance and have long replaced any sorrow.
I prioritize my mental health, and I am a vocal advocate for other physicians (and non-physicians) to do the same. In t-shirt size and in work-life balance, my motto is: “One size fits none.” I have continued to tweak my practice of anesthesiology as my family’s needs have changed, and it has undoubtedly prolonged my career. It is not a traditional path that I am on (in many aspects), and I am grateful for it every day.
On World Down Syndrome Day, I celebrate our daughter and all of the amazing people who inhabit this earth who also happen to rock an extra 21st chromosome.
I see you, and I will continue to go to work so that you can be seen.
Ashley Prince is an anesthesiologist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com