One woman’s journey to becoming a doctor 

By Stefani Soliman

Maria Tassone knows what a little hard work feels like. Actually, she knows what a lot of hard work feels like. And she’s good at it. That’s because becoming a doctor means putting in long hours, longer hours, and then a few more for good measure. Maria is going through it all during her time as a pediatric resident. She’s worked her whole life to get to where she is now. Excelling in high school, being accepted to the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University during the third year of her undergraduate degree, and now completing her decade-long training. Much of her life has been about the pursuit of her goal – to become a doctor.

But what happens when career is no longer the only goal?

Maria is constantly learning how to straddle the line between personal and professional. In her line of work, it’s about always being on top of your game and pushing yourself further to do it all. Learning is king, and any spare time is spent studying, doing researching, or being on hospital committees.

Her day starts at the hospital at 7:30 a.m., where she works in the clinic or in the ward seeing patients. After finishing regular work hours around 6:00 p.m., Maria moves on to the medical residents’ other expectations, including research and extra-curricular committees (such as patient advocacy). On top of the usual work week, 24-hour on-call shifts take place about every four days, including two weekends a month.

With an engagement last year and a wedding coming up in the summer of 2018, Maria had to think ahead. In order to make it all work, she arranged everything to allow herself one year to plan her wedding with the following year being used to study for her licensing exam ahead of the big day. “You have to build things into your life,” says Maria, “Or else you’ll be working all the time.” She stresses the importance of carefully (and sometimes meticulously) scheduling in things you want to do with the things you have to do.

So how does she manage? A good support system. Along with the backing of her family, Maria’s fiancé is also a physician, so he understands the demands of the profession. As she works in pediatrics, a field with predominantly female physicians, she also finds support in the workplace. While it would be expected that mothers taking maternity leave or leaving the office early to pick up their children would be frowned upon, the women at the hospital preach respect and encouragement.

And having her own children to pick up is something Maria is thinking about. She hopes to have her own family one day, and is already looking ahead to those logistics. There is pressure to take less time off, at least if you want to stay on track with the rest of the class regularly logging 24 hour shifts. Can she have a family life? “It’s all about striking a balance,” Maria believes. “The culture is shifting to become more understanding. While you need to devote a lot of time to medicine in order to become a good doctor, it’s not impossible to have both a career and a family.”

That pressure to devote your entire life to medicine is not as bad as it used to be, notes Maria. Most of the pressure comes from themselves, as the “Type A physicians that we are.” It seems that no matter the career, if you are a driven woman, you face a constant inner struggle not to let your identity be tied only to your job. To find the happy medium between achieving in one’s career and experiencing things outside of the chosen profession.

And that’s the conflict many women face. After putting many years (often over a decade) into education and training for a career, they feel like they may be giving up everything just to stay home with a family. Do they take a pay cut to raise their children? Or work full-time and risk missing family milestones? Even during their training, it can be hard to maintain relationships as often there just isn’t time.

“I’ve learned my spare time is precious,” Maria says about her residency. “I’ve learned what matters most to me, and where to put that time.”

Luckily, there’s hope, at least in Maria’s field.  The medical field is increasingly recognizing the need for balance as issues of physician burnout and mental illness come to light.  There tends to be a lot of shame and guilt around these issues with physicians feeling like, “We’re the doctors, not the patients. We need to be strong, resilient. We can’t show signs of weakness.” Medical schools and residency programs have begun to address the stigmas around physician mental health with various initiatives. These initiatives encourage young physicians to take time away from the high-stress environments they work in daily, to focus on well-being, coping with anxiety, and stress management.

So, how does a woman succeed at having it all? An understanding support system. Maria sums it all up; “Focus your time on things that matter most. I’ve learned which people are important to me. They’re the ones I go to in that short precious time I have.”