For Kristina Deeter, a hard day at work could include resuscitating a toddler who nearly drowned, adjusting medication for a child who is struggling to tolerate a new heart or setting up a premature baby on life support.
Then, after an intense 12-hour shift, Deeter, a 41-year-old pediatric intensive care physician, will go home to her own children — and try not to be a hyper-sensitive mom. “My job makes me very aware that anything can happen,” she says. “I think that makes my relationships with my own kids more special.”
Many working parents — and mothers in particular — tread a delicate line between demanding careers and the needs of family. But for mothers in medicine, the stakes are particularly high.
“It’s a critical job and I can’t just run out the door if something happens at home,” says Deeter who is part of an 9-doctor team with Pediatric Critical Care of South Florida, which operates the pediatric intensive care unit at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood and North Naples Hospital in Southwest Florida. “I say I’m sorry to my kids and husband a lot. But when it’s really important, I’m there.”
To help her children understand why she works such long hours, Deeter has introduced her children to patients and even brought them with her to bereavement ceremonies.. “I don’t want them damaged by my job, but I do want them to have that compassion to help others.’’
As women have come up the ranks in the male-dominated field of medicine, they have changed the practice, taken a more nurturing approach to interacting with patients and families and made it more acceptable to openly talk about challenges of many years of schooling, training, a high-stress environment, long and unpredictable hours — and motherhood. Today, nearly 13 percent of physicians are female, compared with about 8 percent a decade ago, according to the American Medical Association.
Toba Niazi, 34, is the rarest of women in medicine: a neurosurgeon. Only 200 — about 7 percent of the nation’s roughly 3,300 board-certified neurosurgeons — are female. On a given day, Niazi might meticulously remove a tumor from a child’s brain or skillfully repair a baby’s spinal cord. She operates as part of the three-person department at Miami Children’s Hospital and serves as a voluntary faculty member at the University of Miami, which means she sees children who are pediatric neurology patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Niazi also is the mother of a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old. Pregnancy was difficult. She spent eight to 10 hours at a time on her feet in the operating room — without a bathroom break. Of course, motherhood is a challenge, too. “It’s hard to leave your 2-year-old when you’re going to work and say, ‘I’ll see you in 12 or 16 hours,’ especially when you leave them with a caretaker that is not family,” she says.
After long emotional days at work, Niazi says she wants to be the one to tuck her tots into bed at night. That doesn’t always happen.
Like many doctor moms, Niazi’s husband also is a physician, a stroke neurologist at Baptist Health South Florida. A full-time nanny cares for the kids during the day, but dad’s schedule allows him to be the parent at home at night when his wife is on call or works late. “He gets what I deal with and understands when I have a sick child I have to take care of and can’t come home,” Niazi explains. “I don’t think anyone else would tolerate it.”
Support at home is essential. So are the right workplace partnerships or teams who share responsibilities and support motherhood.
Positive outcomes are critical not just for moms in medicine, but for the nation at large. Amid a potential physician shortage, an increasing numbers of doctors — mostly women — are deciding to work part time or leave the profession.
Setting up a system that works can take some trial and error — and staying power.
“It’s a long road and at times during that road, you think ‘wow can I do this?’ It’s your passion that gets you through it,” Niazi explains.
Ana Russo, 33, says she can go from shuttling her child to school to keeping another child alive within the same hour. She’s a nurse who is on the frontline when a child with a traumatic injury arrives at Jackson Memorial Hospital Ryder Trauma Center in Miami.
As a mother of two boys, 6 and 2, she says it’s almost impossible to not to relate to the heartache parents endure when their child is critically injured riding a bicycle, swimming in a pool or crossing the street. It has made her a much more cautious mother, maybe even overly cautious. She insists her kids wear elbow and knee pads and a helmet when they ride their bikes. “It’s hard to not keep my kids in a bubble with everything I see at work.”
Russo says some days, she gets emotionally attached to saving a young patient, feeling a sense of responsibility. As a mother herself, “you care for that child like your own.” Her days can stretch into night without an opportunity to check in at home during her 12-hour shift. “That’s why you have to have a good support system at home.” She relies on her husband and aunt to be there for homework, afterschool activities and dinner.
Lynn Meister, 52, worked full days and many nights as a pediatric hematologist/oncologist while raising two children, now in their 20s. She says she relied heavily on her husband for help at home and never once felt the personal sacrifices outweighed the rewards.
For years Meister would get asked, “’As a mother, how can you do that kind of work? Doesn’t it make you afraid?’ But I wasn’t afraid. I always felt like I had so much to offer because I am a mother.”
She, too, experienced the medical nightmare as a parent, when her then 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. That daughter now is an eight-year cancer survivor. Meister says the experience made the balancing act that much more important to her and led her to become an even better doctor.
Yet, Meister says her biggest battle was with imperfection, a common struggle among working mothers. “I felt like I never was doing quite as good a job as I could as a doctor or mother.” Today, she encourages other women to stick with medicine. “My son and daughter are fine adults, and if I can cure a child of cancer what can be better than that?”