A Symbiotic Relationship
In his prizewinning 2019 John Henahan Prize essay, Dr Luke Sansom reflects on the journey he and his family have taken over the years of his career
“I want to quit!” A look of bemusement came across the face of my supervisor as I told him of my intentions toward the end of my first year in ophthalmology training. It was a moment I had rehearsed in my head for some months and I was clear about two things, I hated ophthalmology and I wanted out. Or so I thought.
This may not be the opening paragraph one might expect for an essay on balancing family life and ophthalmology. I must explain the journey that got me to this point, what happened and where I am today.
Following specialty recruitment applications, I was incredibly fortunate to receive a national training post in ophthalmology. The post did however require me to move my wife, young son and baby daughter across the country, far from friends, family and familiarity. When we moved, we found the local schools were full, with no places for miles around, and the house we had rented turned out to be small and dated, and we quickly learnt it was cold, mould-ridden and noisy too. We ended up having to register with a local fee-paying school at the cost of nearly one third of my annual take home pay, ouch! My wife was miserable, having left her friends and support network behind. I was working long days, with lengthy commutes on public transport. The school fees made it financially unviable to run a car. I was also often working extra shifts in the emergency department to generate extra money. Family life was at a low point, we had little money and even less time to spend together, happiness was very much at a premium.
Surely work could provide me with some relief and form of escape from the pressures of family life. It seemed not. My new colleagues were all welcoming, kind and supportive and without them I’m sure I would have tried to quit sooner still. Despite their efforts I found the work very challenging. There was new equipment, new terminology and new diseases to learn, and fast. I was finding cataract surgery hard, really hard. Operating was the one thing I had enjoyed the most during my medical training, but here I was hating every minute and struggling terribly. Each day I felt like I was drowning in new challenges, unable to ever catch my breath. I could see my trainee colleagues were excelling, where I very clearly was not.
I had the job that I had so desperately always wanted, so why was I so dissatisfied and unmotivated. I had convinced myself that I’d be much happier doing something else and that quitting was my best option. After a protracted period of reflection, I came to realise that I was so unhappy in my work because my family felt stressed, unsupported and disillusioned. I blamed myself and I felt a great sense of guilt. Moreover, I hadn’t been there to support them through their struggles. The times I was home, I often felt so fatigued from the stresses of my working day that I was unable to give them the attention and love that they so desperately craved. I felt that if I couldn’t properly care for my own family how could I reasonably be expected to care for my patients or anyone else.
Thankfully my supervisor listened to me and encouraged me to give it more time. I reluctantly agreed. I was glad I did. My wife and I set to work trying to transform our family life. We managed to move to a lovely house, get my son into an excellent state school and we started making friends locally. We had a little more time together and most importantly filled that time with the fun, love and happiness that we had been so desperately missing.
I still work long hours, have long commutes and cover unsociable oncalls and inevitably miss out on family events. My family accept that I might not always be there, but when I am home, they know that I am theirs and theirs only. From playing football in the garden after an exhaustingly long day, skipping breakfast to instead plait my daughter’s hair to look ‘just like Rapunzel’, or getting up early after a busy weekend oncall to take the kids out so that my wife can have a few child-free hours to see her friends. These small acts of effort, love and kindness are the glue that bond our family together and provide each of us with a stable base to go forward and achieve our goals.
I did ultimately stay in ophthalmology training and I could not be happier. These are my reflections on balancing a career in ophthalmology and family life and how in this symbiotic relationship things can go very wrong, but how we owe it to ourselves, to our families and to our patients to find that balance. My greatest failing was not realising soon enough the monumental role my family play in making me fulfilled, happy and resilient and the vital importance this has in all aspects of my life.
Dr Sansom is a Specialty Trainee at the York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Yorkshire, UK