Not a fish

Thruston-BannerIt took a full minute of back scratching and hair stroking before she stirred.

“Hey, girlie,” I whispered as I leaned over the bed. “I’m going to work now. Can I have a big hug and a kiss?”

Without opening her eyes, she stretched her arms out, wrapped them around my neck and planted a kiss on my cheek.

“Are you going to go do surgery on people?” she asked, eyes still closed.

“Yep. Go back to sleep, kiddo. I love you.”

She rolled over and pulled the blanket up, and that was it. I lingered for a moment, expecting a screech of protest, but it never came. It was the first time since I’d started rotations almost 9 months ago that there was no demand for me to stay. At the very least I expected her to insist on being carried to the porch to wave goodbye to me as I left, but nope – she was out.

My rational brain knew I should be glad. Standing outside in the dark to wave goodbye to Mom at 5 a.m. every day wasn’t exactly best practice for a restful night’s sleep. The fact that she had stayed in bed was a sign that she was adjusting, normalizing, settling in. “All good things!” the voice of reason firmly reiterated, but in my gut I could already feel the cold grip of Mommy Guilt taking hold, and there really is no way to come back from that (see below).

Med Student Mom Self-Assessment Flowchart

To my credit, I made it through morning rounds, melanoma conference, eight hours of surgery clinic, evening rounds and almost the whole 10-minute walk back to my car without breaking down. It wasn’t until the last half block that I couldn’t hold the tears back any longer, and by the time I reached my car door I was in full-blown ugly cry mode.


So it seems to go in third year: there’s a period of pushing hard, doing my best to be a Good Student for 10-14 hours a day despite not really knowing what that means or how it’s being measured, trying to parent my daughter with patience and grace during the single hour I get to see her despite already being physically and emotionally tapped out. No one tells you about this side of medical school, in part I think because it wouldn’t do any good. Similar to having a newborn, the work involved sounds manageable enough on paper; it isn’t until you experience it first hand that you can truly appreciate the cumulative mental and physical toll that it takes on you.

For a few weeks at a time, though, I can hold my breath and pretend to be a fish. As long as I focus on swimming with every atom in my body I’m okay. But inevitably something happens that forces me to slow down: an unexpected bit of news, a child staying in bed rather than waving goodbye, a harsh word from an attending, a car that won’t start. It only takes a moment for my oxygen hunger to catch up with me and send me gasping to the surface. Because, as it turns out, I am not a fish. I am a human with needs that go beyond the occasional nibble of algae (delicious as it may be). So I have a good cry, take a big gulp of air and dive back under.

7 responses to “Not a fish

  1. As hard as we try, being a parent ( especially in med school) tugs at your heart strings no matter what you do. Crying is a good choice, then starting again.

  2. Know the feeling. Just keep making her a part of the process. You both will thrive and have an unbelievable bond forever!

  3. You’re doing great! Being a parent is HARD no matter what your vocation but especially when it comes with all the pitfalls of being in the 24h field of healthcare. Keep up the good work, momma.

  4. Megan Thruston is awesome. So is Elsie. The two have brought more humor to more people in tough times than all of the rest of us together.

  5. I had to leave a sick child at home today. It felt unnatural and sad. But Daddy is home with him; still hard to go… I know how you feel.

  6. I’m a dental student at OHSU nearing the end of my first year. I have six children and I am a single mother, granted, some of my children are old enough to take care of themselves, but I still have three younger ones at home and the guilt at leaving them every day for most of the day, only seeing them for an hour a day weighs on me. It was so good to see your post and to know there are others out there going through the same thing!

  7. Keep your head up! Reach out for help from those you are close to. You are in the darkest hours, you will get through them, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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