Dr Katherine Spira, final year Advanced Trainee in Neurology and Dr Paul Hamor, Respiratory & Sleep Physician and Network Director of Physician Training at Prince of Wales Hospital, write about the benefits and challenges of being in a relationship with someone in medicine.
I always used to look at doctor-non-doctor couples with a sense of intrigue. I remember thinking that that’s what I wanted – it would teach me about work-life balance and remind me of the world outside medicine. Now I know that it doesn’t matter as finding the love of your life and being excited to go home to see them every day is a wonderful way to realign your priorities. This has only progressed since Paul and I had our daughter 8 months ago. I feel like although I have spent years busily getting educated and honing my medical skills, my true calling in life was actually motherhood. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love being a doctor but I now view my career as the icing, not the cake itself.
To many people we must look a little boring – Paul is a Respiratory Physician as is his father, I am a Neurology Advanced Trainee and the daughter of a Neurologist. We live in a flat up the road from the house that I grew up in, and down the road from the house where Paul spent most of his adolescence (although we never knew each other as kids). The view from inside our little love bubble however is anything but boring. We have a charmed life filled with love and happiness. Paul is an old school romantic and I hope that he feels as supported and cared for by me as I do by him.
Our early days of dating took place during a period of my residency when I was trying to sort out whether I would do physicians training or O&G. I volunteered to do mainly nights for almost 6 months to see if I could deal with shiftwork. Needless to say, it was not for me and endless midnight musings about the wellbeing of our fledgling relationship, my incessant moodiness and unsocial hours were not helpful to things with Paul getting off on the right foot. Suddenly one day I found myself sitting opposite Paul back at the restaurant where we had our first date. It turned out it was our six-month anniversary and I hadn’t realised! I knew right then that we would marry one day as anyone who could have put up with me during those months would surely be able to weather any storms up ahead.
We have done all the rites of passage that one would expect from a doctor-in-training couple: moving in together only to have me living in other cities for 12 of the next 24 months, me getting called in to work the day Paul had planned to propose, Paul doing most of our wedding planning as I was rotated out of town for the 6 months before we tied the knot. It has certainly helped to have a partner who has been there before and doesn’t need an explanation for my bizarre lifestyle. Since finishing my basic physician training, I have prioritised us being together and have had a policy of not applying for jobs that would separate us. Luckily with the end of training in sight I seem to have gotten away with it.
I remember thinking as a junior doctor how tough it was to meet new women to date. When it came to relationships, I did what was done in the pre-Tinder era and joined RSVP. I chatted to a few girls online, but finding time for dates with my work schedule was difficult: I was in my PGY3 year and mostly did locum work in regional and rural areas of Australia – Dubbo, Tamworth, Mt Isa, Katoomba. I would be away for a week or two at a time, often at short notice.
In my PGY4 year, I ‘settled’ down for a regular job as a BPT and thought to myself – ‘great, I’ll finally be in one place long enough to meet someone.’ But my first term I was seconded to Bathurst, second term was a long commute from home (and back living with my mum while I found a place to live), third term I was on call up to one in four days doing a busy Neurology term and fourth term was nights and relief. Add to this busy mix trying to study for the RACP quiz, finding time to date was difficult. But I tried to commit some time, and so I eventually went on a few dates with women from RSVP. I would have a nice night, and at the end of the night, as we tried to organise the next time to meet up, I would realise I’d next be free in 2 or 3 weeks’ time. Unfortunately, I think the girls took this to mean that I wasn’t serious about them. I also found I didn’t really have much in common with them.
First term of my PGY5 year was spent in lock down reading for my written examinations and second term was lost to clinical examination preparation. Thankfully I got through both exams intact, but was promptly sent off to Alice Springs for my third term. Dating would have to wait a little bit longer.
I was lucky to get into the Respiratory training program at my preferred hospital, which seconded me to Gosford Hospital in term 1 of my PGY6 year – another 3 months of instability away from home. This was the last term I would have to work away from Sydney, and on my return, I knew that it was time to ‘get serious.’
I knew I was looking for a smart and independent woman, not just a ‘trophy wife’ – someone who I could travel through life with as an equal. But dating someone from your workplace is fraught with risk – particularly if it goes wrong. And generally I’m a risk-averse kinda guy.
So one Saturday morning I received a chat-message from a girl I had gone on an RSVP date with 3 years earlier telling me that she had just got married. Good for her I thought – stop bragging! Then she told me that I should meet one of her bridesmaids. She worked in another hospital and was three years my junior. I got Katherine’s number and called her the following week. However, she had just started annual leave, and then was going on O&G nights, so our first date would have to wait 3 or 4 weeks. I waited. Our first date finally came and we hit it off! Our shared experiences and backgrounds meant that conversation flowed, we could empathise with each other’s problems and we shared a similar outlook. At the end of the night, we checked our schedules, and she said she was doing nights again and it would be 2 or 3 weeks before we could meet again. It all sounded very familiar but I was happy to wait.
We were married 3 years later…
It hasn’t been easy, but Katherine and I share the highs and lows, help each other navigate the path of life, are each other’s counsel and also provide a handy second opinion! I love her more each day that passes and hope to continue for many more.
Too often there is a culture of delayed gratification in medicine. We put off meeting people, developing relationships, taking up hobbies, looking after ourselves – all in the pursuit of exceeding our own expectations and getting through the training schemes we commit to. I remember when I was a registrar my 2nd year medical student told me she was “too busy to go on dates because her exams were looming” and that hopefully she would have more time for dates when she was an intern. Well I told her what I write here now: you only get busier every year. Life only gets more complex. Work-life balance is not a destination that you get to after your exams or training. It’s a skill that you must practice and integrate into your schedule. Love and relationships are the same. My mother-in-law told me that the key to a successful marriage is to work on it every day, and I’ve been trying ever since.
It is easy to get sucked into the vortex of work and study to the exclusion of all else. But coming home to someone you care for certainly puts everything else into perspective.
The benefits of being in a relationship with someone in medicine? Medicine throws up many challenges. Having a partner that understands and supports me through those difficulties has been a great source of strength for me, and has allowed us to grow closer together. Katherine is an incredibly supportive partner and I feel lucky that we have found each other to share this journey together.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This article was originally published on Tuesday 14 February 2016 on Valentine’s Day.
Dr Katherine Spira is now a Consultant Neurologist working in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.
Dr Paul Hamor is still working as a Respiratory & Sleep Physician and Network Director of Physician Training at Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney.
They are both still happily married, to each other.