The oxymoron of life as a woman physician

I am a woman physician. To me, this is an oxymoron. Woman: soft, fluid, attuned to the cyclical nature of the world, nurturing, creative. Physician: cold, rigid, always expecting the best from oneself and others, objective, better than human. Yet these two threads are woven together with others into the fabric of my life. Yes, I am a woman physician.

My first term of medical school was drawing to a close. One morning I awoke to excruciating abdominal pain. A week later the surgeon's knife revealed a large ovarian cyst that had twisted upon itself. I had polycystic ovaries and would be unlikely to bear children. Now minus an ovary and fallopian tube, I hurried back to take my finals; I earned a 4.0 that term. According to the physician Christiane Northrup, the body can be an expression of a woman's life. She writes that the ovaries are the center of a woman's creativity. Ovarian dysfunction occurs when the woman perceives that outside pressures prevent her creative expression. What was my body telling me that first term in medical school as I tried to excel in that environment? Polycystic ovaries were not uncommon among my female classmates. One classmate fell asleep while studying pathology with the three-inch-thick Robbins textbook perched on her pelvic bones. As she drifted off, the book fell onto her abdomen and ruptured an ovarian cyst. Perhaps this was a metaphor for what was happening to us all. Yes, I am a woman physician.

I stood in the tiny inner city hospital restroom, my exposed breast pressed against the handheld breast pump. I hadn't planned to have a child as a resident. In fact, I had been told I couldn't have children. We had started trying in order to justify adoption when I was finished with training; I was pregnant within two months. My breasts ached and were heavy with milk, yet only a few white drops fell into the plastic jar. Milk let-down happens with relaxation, and I was hardly relaxed standing in that dingy little restroom with only a few minutes to spare. Tears rested on my lower lids. My son would not have his mother's milk the next day; I had run dry. It had been two weeks since I had returned to work. I had tried my best to be one of the guys. But who was I fooling? I, the nursing mother of an eight-week-old infant, could never be one of the guys. My twice-daily, five-minute escapes to pump my breasts were barely tolerated. The tears overflowed onto my cheeks. I was failing as a mother and failing as a resident. I buttoned my blouse and opened the door. Yes, I am a woman physician.

I looked at the radiology resident seated beside me. In the darkened reading room, his face glowed from the reflected light of the viewing board. I had asked him a question about the film and now waited for his answer. I had always felt a tension at this moment in teaching. I wanted to wait long enough for him to realize that he knew the answer; there is empowerment in verifying the extent of one's knowledge. But I didn't want to wait too long before giving him the answer; that would be only prolonging his agony if he really didn't know it. I looked at him as he thought; suddenly I saw my child's face in that expression of concentration. I blinked my eyes and shook my head. The resident's face returned, but the revelation stuck. The residents, like my children and like us all, wanted and needed nurturing in order to grow and develop. "Have you beat on him yet, Susan? He won't learn if you don't beat on him!" My reverie was broken as a colleague entered the room. The resident looked nervously at me. I didn't answer. The hurt of my own abusive training pierced through me. I turned toward the resident and urged him to continue answering the question. Yes, I am a woman physician.

A male colleague, a successful man of my age, summoned me for a meeting about a project of mutual interest. He and I faced each other as we sat in the upholstered chairs in his corner office. In slow, measured words, he expressed his dismay at my participation in a proposal from a creative, multidisciplinary team; I had followed my heart rather than the organizational chart. Later, I stood in my office (I was too enraged to sit) and recounted the meeting to a female colleague. She protested that he dared to make such comments only because I was a woman. I have since pondered that remark; is it that simple? I had acted intuitively in my work, perhaps as an expression of my femininity. He had censored me. But was he censoring me for being a woman or for my intuitive, feminine action? I took in a deep breath, exhaling slowly as blind rage coursed through my body. Yes, I am a woman physician.

As a woman physician, is my life an oxymoron? Contained within my bones are there two warring opposites, woman and physician, in mortal combat for control of my life? "Yes," answers the medical establishment, "You must choose between them." But my inner wisdom answers, "No." I believe that life can be like a kaleidoscope. It can take the chaotic mixture of the brightly colored components of my identity and transform them into beautiful, ever-changing patterns that calm and heal the viewer. I am a physician with my children, treating tummy aches and scraped knees. I am a woman with my colleagues, bringing nurture and an intuitive spirit to our creative endeavors to heal. So I walk along the road of life, sometimes skipping and sometimes trudging, occasionally stopping to peer into a still, roadside pool. In the reflection of the quiet water I see that, yes, I am a woman physician.

Susan Brothers Peterman is an assistant professor of radiology.

Return to the February 26, 1996 contents page