The practice of emergency medicine is a team sport

“Same team!” bellowed all the frustrated parents from the sideline of a lacrosse game as we watched two teammates clash sticks while fighting to catch the same pass. Both players missed the ball, and the other team scooped it up and scored, perfectly illustrating to our kids what happens when they battle among themselves.

It’s easy to remind our kids that teammates shouldn’t fight, but it’s harder to remind each other respectfully as adults, and sometimes, unfortunately, someone needs to yell “same team” at us too. I thought this recently as I read the reactions to the “Married to Medicine” column that debuted in Emergency Medicine News in March. Some noted names in emergency medicine, physicians I admire and consider captains of our specialty, wrote a letter to the editor questioning the value of Thayer Gorges’ article titled “Gold Digger or Lucky? Being Married to an EP.” They opined that it echoed stereotypes of the past, lacked substance, and had no place in EMN.

I respectfully disagree and contend that Thayer’s perspective as a female spouse of a physician is valuable. Her article opened the door to conversations about gender roles and feminism in medicine. The reactions to what she wrote made me ask myself what feminism is. Her critics asserted that feminism is about choice, not about perpetuating the stereotypes of the past. Yet, trivializing a writer because she writes about facets of her life that line up with traditional gender stereotypes does not seem like the answer either.

Feminism should be about women having the choice to be proudly themselves, whatever their paths may be. A strong woman who has chosen to be a stay-at-home mom and is bold enough to put her voice out there in a forum typically reserved for physicians deserves our respect. Feminism means supporting her in whatever role she chooses without concern for society’s expectations, whether that role is physician, cheerleader, or wife.

Empowering women doesn’t necessarily mean opposing stereotypes or requiring us to act like men. Women should not need to downplay their femininity to be powerful. Strong women in medicine are defined not only by pursuit of leadership positions and career achievements but also by the courage to be who they are unapologetically. Strength can be having the fearlessness to wear Louboutins and red lipstick to work, knowing that embracing every ounce of femininity doesn’t make women any less capable or respect-worthy as physicians. Female physicians who highlight all their decidedly unmasculine aspects and celebrate womanhood are moving our profession forward. We are the voice and inspiration for a lot of young girls. Girls need all types of female role models, not discouragement from their paths because they don’t fit someone’s narrow version of a role model for what they want to be.

Both in and outside of medicine, every woman with the confidence and conviction to stay true to her own voice will empower another woman by example. I was lucky to have a fabulously feminine yet fierce physician as my first boss. She always made me feel like I could be myself and that my voice mattered no matter how girlish it was. She never made me feel like I was somehow perpetuating stereotypes when I proudly owned my feminine characteristics and talked about being a wife and a mom. We need more women in medicine who lift up other women. That’s the main reason why, as a woman, I felt compelled to write in support of Thayer. Empowered women empower other women.

EM’s toll on families

The other reason I wanted to write in support of Thayer’s column is that it highlights EPs’ home lives. Her critics accurately noted in their letter to the editor that they “struggle to provide an environment of support for all our colleagues to be active members of their home and work lives, regardless of gender.” Part of the problem is that domestic and childcare activities, like what Thayer writes about, are often not recognized as important work by physicians or society.

Society should value rather than marginalize childcare endeavors. I say kudos to those like Thayer who put their personal aspirations on the back burner to be better parents. If we put more value in what they do — in “just” being a parent — perhaps EPs would not feel as much pressure to marginalize our parenting and home lives to the point where we feel unbalanced. If we want to promote work-life balance in medicine, we should not only discuss but respect physicians’ home lives and work lives.

One of medicine’s dirty little secrets is the toll this career takes on our families. Physician spouses can explain better than anyone what they give up for us. It’s time to talk about the high price our families pay for the job we do. For many physician households, mine included, this means divorce. The sacrifices are more numerous than many realize; ask my sons. Thinking our career choice does not have significant relationship and home life ramifications that are complicated and worth sharing in a professional magazine does the opposite of advancing our field for men and women.

Even if you don’t want to hear what a wife has to say, the attitude and concerns of a spouse directly affect the mental state of practicing physicians. Trouble at home and outside of work inevitably affects patient care and precipitates physician burnout. Sharing the whole picture through articles such as Thayer’s can only move medicine forward and promote physician wellness.

EM is broad in content, and EPs specialize in well-roundedness, so an EM magazine including a broad spectrum of topics and voices, from serious news to lighthearted essays, reflects what we do and who we are. There is room for all vantage points, including one from an EP’s wife. Thayer wrote that marriage to an EP is a team sport. (“Marriage [Especially with an EP] is a Team Sport,” The practice of emergency medicine is a team sport as well. It involves not just the doctors and nurses in the ED, but all the staff and family who support them behind the scenes, and each voice has something to contribute. Instead of butting our helmets and fighting with each other, let’s strategize the best team play to get to the goal of making emergency medicine a winning career path. Same team, people! Same team!

Sandra Scott Simons is an emergency physician.  This article originally appeared in Emergency Medicine News.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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