After about the first week of anesthesia residency, I was told, “Don’t get pregnant, you are going to ruin the call schedule.” Initially, I took it as a joke because I was getting married that year and I wasn’t thinking of having children yet, but I did think, “what if it happened accidentally?”
After it’s told to you over and over again by your male co-residents and even some of my attendings, it pretty much sticks. Got it, don’t get pregnant; otherwise, everyone else is going to be ticked that they are now taking extra call to cover mine.
Fast forward a few years, and now I’m out as a first year attending. I’m taking a quick break, drinking coffee, and one of my male colleagues says to me, “You know we put birth control in your coffee.” I’m baffled at this point, but still just think it’s the culture of anesthesia and don’t make it a big deal. I should have realized at that time; it is a big deal! It’s really not a joke, and why do people think it’s acceptable to say stuff like that to women?
A year later, I was pregnant. As I reflect back, I truly wish someone had guided me about maternity leave and pumping at work. I never asked all the right questions simply because I did not know that it was my right and not just a privilege. My next memorable quick break was when I had to use the bathroom repeatedly and feeling a little off. It turns out, I went into labor at work! I ended up delivering a 34-week preemie at my hospital. As excited I was to be a mom for the first time, I only took six weeks off of work; it was an emotional and stressful time, to say the least. I also only pumped for a few months because it was impossible at work to have someone get me out to do so. A very similar situation happened with my second child. Again, I wish I knew better. I wish I knew that it was my right to do so if I wanted to. Given the environment at work, I didn’t have anyone to go to about this, and there was limited literature on this topic at the time. I felt pressured to be a certain way, disconnected from my newborn and incredibly alone.
I think back and remember that I was happy that my close friend, an emergency room physician, told me to buy a short-term disability policy. I paid more for the one with the shortest elimination period, but that benefited me considering my tumultuous pregnancy. My group let me use two unpaid days in the latter part of the year, since I delivered in January. At that time, however, I did not think of asking, and no one suggested it to me, that I can borrow vacation days from the following year.
When it comes to pumping, I did not ask all the right questions. I tell all of my pregnant colleagues to remember to ask for a clean, traffic-free environment to pump in. I remember being so embarrassed pumping in a location where random people would walk in to make phone calls on their cell phone or to use the bathroom in that room. Eventually, I stopped pumping because there was no one to break me, especially in an off-site location where I was the solo anesthesiologist. It wasn’t until after having both children, I realized there is no guidance in our specialty. It’s a trial and learn by error process, and it shouldn’t be that way.
As someone who has gone through this, I know it can be a tricky situation to navigate. Please remember to be nice to your pregnant colleagues. Kindness goes a long way; just like residency, there was a chance you or your spouse were in this person’s shoes before or will be at some point. It is not fun if you are nine months pregnant in a long case with no end in sight. Offering your fellow anesthesiologist an extra break to use the bathroom, hydrate themselves, or grab a snack will go a long way in their eyes. Pay it forward should be the attitude.
Avani Trivedi is an anesthesiologist.
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