Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

How are two-career households with children — let alone single-parent households — going to manage with daycare centers and schools closed, perhaps for a long time to come? What damage will this do to career progress and earning potential if one parent must cut back on work? Will childcare demands inevitably delay or derail partnership or academic promotion?

When I was a young mother — my two youngest children are only 17 months apart — life revolved around childcare arrangements. As newly fledged attendings, my husband and I both wanted to practice full time, and with the confidence of youth we assumed we could make it work. For a time, we had a live-in nanny. As the babies turned into children old enough for school, we still needed a full-time nanny for drop-off, pick-up, and the days when the kids were sick and needed to stay home. We accepted the fact that a third or more of our joint income would be spent on childcare and other support services so that we could both keep working as physicians and stay sane.

But what if there had been no school?

Today, it’s hard to fathom the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on families trying to find solutions to their childcare needs with the closure of private and public schools alike. Who’s going to watch, let alone educate, the kids? A nanny, no matter how conscientious and loving, may not be a good educator. When one parent has to work less in order to supervise learning at home, often that job falls to the mother. What happens to her career?

The vicious downturn cycle

As of early July, the Census Bureau estimates that half of American adults live in households that lost job income this spring. Many anesthesiologists lost income too during the periods in March and April when elective surgery in many states went on hiatus to keep beds open for COVID-19 patients.

In California, the CSA surveyed members and found that 74% reported experiencing financial hardship this spring, with medium and small private practices faring worse than academic departments. There was no overall difference in perceived economic hardship between men and women in anesthesiology, though women reported being furloughed or given involuntary vacation more often than men: 41% vs. 26% of survey respondents.

When people lose their jobs or work remotely, demand for childcare services plummets. The National Association for the Education of Young Children reports that on average, enrollment in childcare centers is down by 67%. Many that were operating on a slim margin have already gone out of business. The centers that remain open to serve essential workers are facing huge additional expenses for staff, PPE, cleaning supplies, and duplicate equipment and toys to allow cleaning after each use. At least 40% of the remaining childcare centers are likely to go out of business unless significant government assistance arrives soon. People trying to return to work after lockdown — in anesthesiology or any other field — are having trouble finding high-quality early childcare.

“It’s much harder for me to find safe childcare to be able to work,” said one woman anesthesiologist in a private conversation. Another in academic practice commented, “It’s very stressful for the mom!” A third woman is worried because her current au pair leaves in August but the new one may not be able to enter the country due to the hold on visas.

Many of us assumed optimistically that the school closures of the spring would be short-lived, and that September would mark the end of “learning from home”. That doesn’t appear likely. California’s Governor Newsom announced on July 17 that most California public and private schools will not reopen when the academic year begins.

In some states, elite private schools have more latitude to reopen than public schools as they can afford to reduce class size and adapt to strict infection control regulations recommended by the CDC. But many private religious schools that serve less wealthy families were in financial trouble even before the full effect of the pandemic hit. The Roman Catholic Boston archdiocese, for example, has already shuttered 10% of its schools permanently. No one knows yet how many students actually will be able to return to school this fall.

Even if schools reopen where state government permits, it isn’t clear that teachers will agree to return to work. In a July 19 New York Times op-ed, a teacher wrote that she is willing to take a bullet for her students, but exposing herself and her family to COVID-19 would be like asking her to take that bullet home. “It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment,” she wrote. “I am not a human research subject. I will not do it.”

In anesthesia, you can’t “phone it in”

What are women in anesthesiology going to do if schools don’t reopen? If your job is purely administrative, or you can run a preop clinic using telemedicine, you might be able to work remotely. But you can’t “phone it in” if your job is delivering anesthesia to humans.

“I don’t see how this school year is going to work,” said one woman anesthesiologist. “It’s a hot mess.”

A recent New York Times article noted that women overall are doing less paid work since the COVID-19 lockdown began. Whether they worked remotely most of the time or not, though, they ended up being responsible for more of the home schooling this spring than their male partners. The survey also reported that mothers were primarily responsible for home schooling even when couples otherwise shared childcare duties. A sociologist commented, “What terrifies me for the future is if it will push women out of the labor force in a way that will be very hard to overcome.”

Women in anesthesiology also report a disproportionate share of responsibility for their children learning from home.

“Luckily my husband is a stay-at-home dad,” said one anesthesiologist, “but he was not cut out to homeschool. I felt like I had to be his foreman to make sure the kids got everything done while working full clinical hours with in-house call. Definitely an adjustment for all of us. I’m in AZ so I don’t see things getting better soon. This could really last the whole academic year.”

Another woman said her hours were reduced early in the pandemic. “I’m working now but will probably need to cut way down if schools don’t open,” she said. Another anesthesiologist said that she has had to adjust her schedule this spring to work more nights and weekends in order to be home more in the daytime, but “assuming no in-person school, I will most likely have to work less.”

Still another anesthesiologist said she is back at work now since elective surgery resumed, “but am desperately looking for a solution should regular school not be an option. I’d likely have to pull back significantly and fear it would be the end of me…”

Poor prognosis for women’s advancement?

 COVID-19 does not affect everyone’s career equally. The journal Nature Human Behavior reported the results of an April survey of principal investigators in the US and Europe concerning their research productivity during the pandemic. Their findings indicate that “female scientists, those in the ‘bench sciences’ and, especially, scientists with young children experienced a substantial decline in time devoted to research. This could have important short- and longer-term effects on their careers, which institution leaders and founders need to address carefully.”  

The authors concluded that the most important variable was having a young dependent. Scientists with at least one child five years old or younger experienced a 17% larger decline than others in the time they could spend on their research as a result of the pandemic.

 There are no easy answers to the question of how severely or permanently women’s careers will be damaged by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ASA’s Committee on Women in Anesthesia is planning a thorough survey of ASA members on the effect of COVID-19 on academic productivity and career potential. It will be distributed about September 1 for anticipated publication in early 2021, and should shed more light in a quantifiable way on all these issues.

The unhappy fact is that the careers of women in medicine who, like me, chose to have children, have depended on the army of other people — mostly women — who took care of those children. We relied on the nannies, the preschool teachers, the elementary and high school teachers, the after-school programs, and don’t forget the housekeepers. If they can’t work because their own children need to be watched and helped to learn from home, all of us are at economic risk. The scaffolding behind our careers was fragile all along, but it was too scary to think about it up to now.

Until we collectively support the common-sense public health measures that will control the pandemic, we risk the collapse of our economy and our educational system, and the wellbeing of millions of children who need all the benefits of school. Women’s careers will be part of the collateral damage.

Author’s note:  This article was written in July 2020 for the September issue of the American Society of Anesthesiologists monthly magazine, the ASA Monitor, and published online ahead of print.

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Luhby T. Half of US adults live in households that lost income in pandemic. Online publication at CNN.com, July 17, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/17/politics/lost-income-jobs-covid/index.html

Hertzberg L, Merzel M. COVID-19 Economic Impact Survey, conducted on behalf of the California Society of Anesthesiologists. Personal communication from Dr. Linda Hertzberg, ASA Director from California.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. Holding on until help comes: A survey reveals child care’s fight to survive. Online publication July 13, 2020. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/our-work/public-policy-advocacy/holding_on_until_help_comes.survey_analysis_july_2020.pdf

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Considerations for Schools. Website publication last updated May 19, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html

Massachusetts State House News Service. Future of private schools in question with wave of closures. Online publication of MassLive.com, June 10, 2020. https://www.masslive.com/news/2020/06/future-of-private-schools-in-question-with-wave-of-closures.html

Martinson R. Please don’t make me risk getting COVID-19 to teach your child. Online publication of the New York Times, July 18, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/opinion/sunday/covid-schools-reopen-teacher-safety.html

Miller C. Nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling. 3 percent of women agree. Online publication of the New York Times, May 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/upshot/pandemic-chores-homeschooling-gender.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article

Myers K, Tham W, Yin Y, et al. Unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientists. Nature Human Behavior, online publication July 15, 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0921-y

 

If you’re a parent who is still on the fence, trying to decide whether or not to vaccinate your children, I’m going to try to be kind and helpful. Here is a link to a video by a physician and father, Dr. Zubin Damania, with facts that may address some of your fears.

If you’re firmly pro-disease and anti-vaccine, however, I am baffled at your irrationality and frankly enraged by it. I am speaking from the intensely personal point of view of a physician and mother who knows what it’s like to attend the funeral and watch the coffin of her own child being lowered into the ground.

My daughter Alexandra is dead. There is no vaccine that could have saved her. The only thing that could make that enduring grief any worse would be the knowledge that there was a vaccine, and she didn’t get it because of me.

The only bright side to the recent outbreak of measles in the northwestern U.S. is the fact that some parents are finally deciding to protect their children with vaccination, as the New York Times reported on February 16.

I’m old enough to remember the terror that my parents went through every summer as polio epidemics swept the country, and the miracle of standing in line to take the sugar cube with the first oral vaccine in 1961. I have two dear friends who are paraplegic as the result of childhood polio, and you don’t want to have the anti-vaccine conversation with them, I promise you.

Our duty — all of us, as human beings in a civilized society — is to make sure that we and our children are immune to measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, and other infectious diseases so we can protect those who can’t be vaccinated due to real medical problems. We are the herd that has to take responsibility for herd immunity.

Every single one of us has a duty to the cause of public health to be vaccinated ourselves, and a duty to our children to make sure that they are vaccinated on schedule. Yes, I understand that in rare cases the flu vaccine can result in Guillain-Barre syndrome, but I still get the shot every year. It’s my duty to protect my patients, my husband, my children, and my grandchildren from being exposed to the flu, which could happen in the early stage before I might even realize that I was getting sick.

It’s particularly mind-bending to see that some parents think diseases like measles and chickenpox are benign. For every 1000 children who catch measles, one to three will develop encephalitis. Of those, 10 to 15 percent will die, and many more will have permanent neurologic damage. Chickenpox too can lead to encephalitis, and the blisters can get infected and cause full-blown sepsis or pneumonia.

The death of Olivia Dahl

Have you read any of Roald Dahl’s books to your children, and watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach with them? Did you know that his seven-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis in 1962, before the MMR vaccine was available? Here is what Mr. Dahl wrote:

As the illness took its usual course, I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of colored pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.

‘I feel all sleepy’, she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours, she was dead.”

For the rest of his life, Mr. Dahl pleaded with parents to vaccinate their children. Even today, there is little that can be done to save a child who develops measles encephalitis. What we can do is prevent it by vaccinating.

I would never wish for any parent, no matter how irresponsible and irrational the pro-disease advocates are, to suffer the relentless and indescribable grief of their child’s death. In centuries past, parents frequently lost more than one child, but the fact that children’s deaths were common didn’t lessen the pain. If you don’t believe me, read this:

There’s a narrow ridge in the graveyard
Would scarce stay a child in his race,
But to me and my thought it is wider
Than the s
tar-sown vague of Space.

Your logic, my friend, is perfect,
Your moral most drearily true;
But, since the earth clashed on her coffin,
I keep he
aring that, and not you.

Console if you will, I can bear it;
’T is a well-meant alms of breath;
But not all the preaching since Adam
Has made Death other than Death.

It is pagan; but wait till you feel it,—
That jar of our earth, that dull shock
When the ploughshare of deeper passion
Tears down to our primitive rock.

Communion in spirit! Forgive me,
But I, who am earthly and weak,
Would give all my incomes from dream-land
For a touch of her hand on my cheek.

That little shoe in the corner,
So worn and wrinkled and brown,
With its emptiness confutes you,
And argues your wisdom down.

That poem, “After the Burial“, was written by American poet James Russell Lowell, who suffered the loss of three of his four children in the mid-nineteenth century. He hit the mark. So did Ben Jonson, writing about the death of his first daughter in 1593.

I will never write as eloquently as they have. So here’s the bottom line. Get a grip. Vaccinate your kids.

Classic rock music lovers who think they don’t like poetry, and literary purists who think they don’t like popular music, may have been equally baffled to hear that Bob Dylan is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As an unrepentant English major, I’m delighted.

I can’t remember a time when Dylan’s music wasn’t a part of my growing up, from the rebelliousness of the anti-Vietnam era to the bittersweet maturity of “Tangled Up in Blue“, my all-time favorite.

When you think about it, any time you listen to a song — a current popular hit, a 1950’s oldie, or a centuries-old ballad like “Greensleeves” —  you’re listening to poetry, only with a tune. In ancient times, before most could read or write, people turned stories into poetry and sang them because rhyme and melody made the stories easier to remember and retell. Much of rap music is poetry (often crude, but still poetry) with complex use of rhyme and assonance, and the musical element reduced to a backdrop of pounding rhythm.

Poetry set to music can convey any and all human emotion. Love, of course. Jealousy — absolutely. Just pick a musical genre, and there’s a hit song about jealousy. In pop music, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” lets her revel in her psycho side. In country music, Carrie Underwood graphically explains in “Before He Cheats” what can happen when a woman wants revenge on her faithless lover, and takes it out on his car. And the still-creepy “Every Breath You Take“, the 1983 classic rock hit by The Police, blurs the fine line between devotion and obsession.

Then there’s the universal human experience of grief. There was a time when every parent expected to lose a child, or more than one, because children often died from pestilence and poor sanitation. When my daughter Alexandra died unexpectedly at the age of five months, I couldn’t decide which was worse — thinking that I wouldn’t survive, or being horribly afraid that I would.

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Nothing brings out the mama lioness in me more than seeing one of my cubs not being treated as well as I think it should be.

Recently I had the unusual experience of accompanying my oldest daughter into an unfamiliar hospital for a minor surgical procedure. Now this daughter isn’t exactly a cub — she’s a full-fledged adult, with a master’s degree in health care administration, a husband, and two small boys of her own.

But as I watched the OR team prepare her for surgery, I started to feel like an odd combination of a mama lioness and a secret shopper. To the staff members who came in and out of the hospital’s preoperative area, it was clear that I was simply the family member in the corner, and they probably figured I had little clue about what was transpiring. Meanwhile, I was taking in every detail. Some tasks were performed excellently — others, not so much.

The hospital where her surgery took place is a small community hospital on Long Island. It enjoys a location where Jerry Seinfeld, Christie Brinkley, and other wealthy New Yorkers maintain lavish homes for weekend and summer holidays.

My daughter was instructed to arrive at 6:30 a.m. Her procedure involved an initial stop in radiology, to be followed by the actual surgery. As a veteran of hospital life, I questioned whether radiology even opened that early, but we had no way of checking. So we left her house at 5:25, driving carefully on dark, icy roads with fresh snow, and lining up for a 5:40 a.m. ferry ride from her home town so that we could arrive at the hospital by 6:30.

The good news — a valet met us at the hospital door and whisked away the car, so we had only a moment to savor the 20-degree weather and the harsh wind that made it feel colder. My daughter was promptly escorted to a private room to change clothes.

Hurry up and wait

A nurse gave her an insulated paper gown with two openings to connect it to a wall-mounted forced air warming unit. This, I thought, was a wonderful thing. Where I’ve worked, we had forced air warming blankets in the ORs but the hospital wouldn’t spend the money to put them in the preoperative areas. I thought of Tina Fey, playing an immigrant from Albania in a Saturday Night Live spoof of the HBO series “Girls”, and imagined her saying, “In my country, we do not have such things.” Within minutes, my daughter’s gown was hooked up to the warmer and she was feeling much cozier.

Then we waited.

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Did it ever occur to some of today’s physicians that many people work awfully hard and complain a lot less than they do about “burnout” and “work-life balance”?

Did it ever occur to them that “work-life balance” is the very definition of a first-world problem, unique to a very privileged class of highly educated people, most of whom are white?

Every day, I go to work and see the example of the nurses and technicians who work right alongside me in tough thoracic surgery cases. Zanetta, for instance, is the single mother of five children. She leaves her 12-hour shift at 7 p.m. and then faces a 60-mile commute to get home. She never complains, and unfailingly takes the extra moment to get a warm blanket for a patient or cheerfully help out a colleague. When I leave work, I see the gardeners who arrive in battered pickup trucks and mow lawns in the Los Angeles summer heat for slim pay and no benefits. I can’t imagine these people wasting time worrying about work-life balance. They’re too busy working.

Or look at what it’s like to work in one of the world’s top restaurants. Edward Frame, now a graduate student in social research, described his first job in a Michelin-starred kitchen for an article in the New York Times.

“I worked in a small alcove, connected to the dishwasher,” he wrote. “Glass racks came out, I wiped away any watermarks or smudges, and then, just as I finished one rack, another appeared. This went on for hours, like some kind of Sisyphean fable revised for the hospitality industry. By hour two my fingers hurt and my back ached. But I couldn’t stop. The racks kept coming. Slowing down never occurred to me. There wasn’t time. I needed to make it nice. I wanted to make it nice.”

Let’s face it—a lot of people have jobs much worse than being a physician. Apparently, they don’t expect to be coddled or to receive much sympathy about their rate of burnout, or their lack of “work-life balance”. Nor do they expect that workplace expectations will be altered just to suit them.

I can’t imagine having the gall to complain about how tough it is to be a physician when all you have to do is open your eyes and see what’s all around us:  people working incredibly hard, making far less money than we do, and then returning home to face the responsibilities of family life, child care, housework, home maintenance, and everything else.

We—physicians—thankfully can afford help with these tasks. The Medscape Physician Compensation Report for 2015 reported that the average compensation for a primary care physician was $195,000 and for a specialist $284,000.

When I was a new faculty member making an instructor’s salary right after residency, it’s true that I didn’t have a lot of take-home pay left after I made monthly payments for student loans, private pre-school for two children, housecleaning help, and a full-time nanny to provide transportation and after-school care. The full-time nanny was essential because a child with a bad cold or an upset stomach needs to stay home, and a physician can’t drop everything to stay home too. These were investments that my husband and I made because we felt that being a physician is important work.

But in medicine, the prevailing wisdom today is that the rigorous culture of the past needs to change—along with the expectation of dedication to duty, long work hours, and stoicism—because it’s all just too difficult and we risk getting burned out.

Now Stanford University has started a new “time-banking” program designed to ease pressure on faculty physicians and basic science professors. As admiringly described by reporter Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post, the program allows faculty members to “bank” hours that they spend on uncompensated activities such as committee work and earn credits to use for support services at home or work.

Dr. Gregory Gilbert, an emergency physician who was the poster child for the Post article, used his credits for delivery of meals to his home, housecleaning services, and employing a “life coach” to help him “find better balance in his life”.

Wait just a minute. I’m sure that Dr. Gilbert is a good person—a divorced father trying to be a conscientious physician and spend time with his children. He must be a smart guy if he’s on the faculty at Stanford. Do you mean to tell me that Dr. Gilbert couldn’t figure out how to order food delivery and arrange for housecleaning before Stanford came up with this program?

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