“If you had the chance to do it over again, would you?
We’ve discussed it a lot since we’ve been out of residency and the answer would be ‘no’. I think if you ask us in five years, that answer might change. 10 years, I think the answer would be very different. But right now, when you’re fresh out of it, as a couple we would not do an orthopedic surgery residency again.”
This is what Annaliesa Peterson had to say when we met with her to discuss her experience during her husband’s orthopedic surgery residency. Specifically, we wanted to know more about the toll residency took on her mental wellness and how it impacted her relationship with her husband.
Like many women and men who support their spouses and partners through residency, Annaliesa described her experience as lonely, exhausting, and hard. “It turns into a one-sided partnership. You think you have this partner and then they’re completely unavailable and you’re doing everything by yourself.”
These are the realities of life as a resident spouse. “The first year is intern year when they still do rotations with all of the special teams so he had pretty normal hours. When he started on the ortho rotations, he definitely had longer days. Easily up to 12 hours.” The second year is the hardest year for orthopedic residency. All of the responsibility. None of the knowledge. They take call and that’s probably when the hundred-plus hours per week started.”
Such experiences are not rare for medspouses and partners. Unfortunately, what many residency programs don’t consider are all the issues created when spouses leave friends, family, and community to spend this much time alone. Loneliness and stress can amplify current mental and physical health issues. It can even create new ones including anxiety and depression.
What About Mental Health?
The toll a residency program, especially one as intense as a surgical residency, takes on the medspouse/partner can be devastating and life-changing. “We had brand new babies. We weren’t by family. My husband would come home and it’s 10 o’clock and I’m breaking down realizing I couldn’t even find 30 minutes to myself. Naps. Opening fruit snacks. Somebody needs something. That was a pretty low point for me.
I probably should have done it sooner, but the fourth year is when I got on an antidepressant. Honestly, it made a huge difference. You’re in survival mode for a long time and it just gives you the ability to rationally think and not be overwhelmed by your emotions all the time.”
While the stigma associated with antidepressants has decreased, the stress, loneliness, and isolation of residency has only gotten worse. If you’re struggling, reach out for help and talk to a therapist. Do not feel ashamed to solicit the support of antidepressants during this time. As Annaliesa said, “Everybody can benefit from having some extra help when you’re in total survival mode.”
Talk To Us About Self Care
Another way Annaliese combated depression during orthopedic surgery residency was by practicing self-care. “I had to figure out how to make things happen, with no money. I had to figure out self-care.” Annaliesa found a job that would pay enough for babysitting so she could go surfing. “That hobby checked all the boxes for me. Being outside, plus it was both social and physical activity. There were days when exercise was my sanity saver.”
Finding friends who get it is hard, as well. Just like spouses of physicians in other specialties that require long hours, Annaliesa found herself getting envious of friends with husbands who would come home at five o’clock every night and help with dinner and bed. This only emphasizes the importance of finding friends who understand what life in medicine is like. “If you can find medical friends, especially in your same residency program, that’s going to give you that outlet to commiserate. You can’t solve the problem, but having relatability makes it very different.
Finding other physician wives was a really important thing. Even if we weren’t in the same residency program, just having that understanding that residency is terrible. That was a good thing.”
Annaliesa encourages anyone going through orthopedic surgery residency to find “a really solid friend group and then an outlet for yourself that checks more than one box. Not only a physical activity, because you won’t always have time for physical activity. You also need a creative outlet and friends”.
What Happens To Your Marriage?
Before residency, Annaliesa and her husband would say they had a ‘really fantastic’ marriage. However, working 100+ hours per week during an orthopedic surgery residency takes a toll on your relationship. “It just really suffers. The reality is, how do you have a relationship with somebody who’s not around? How do you have any sort of mental, let alone physical, connection when he’s gone all the time?”
They had to have some pretty serious conversations about how to stay married but still felt like they were in “survival mode”. They saw others in their residency program choosing to participate in couples therapy and decided to give it a try. “Even if you just do a few sessions with a couple’s therapist, having someone to “translate” and validate your feelings is incredible. It’s helpful to know that it’s okay that I have all this resentment towards somebody who has no control over their situation.”
Now that residency is completed, Annaliesa finds herself noticing her husband is becoming himself again. “I forget how hilarious he is and how much fun we have together. This is who I married and who I fell in love with. It’s such a happy thing to have.”
When we turned the questions around to Annaliesa’s husband, he used three words to describe her in residency: supportive, frazzled, and independent. Based on her iteration of their orthopedic surgery residency, it seems as if her husband communicated well, was fairly in tune with how she was feeling, and did his part to help ensure their relationship would withstand the test of residency.
In the end, the heart wants what the heart wants. “I think the other specialties weren’t as interesting to him. He tried to talk himself out of ortho many times and it just didn’t happen. We’d go out somewhere and he’d draw the brachial complex on napkins. I’m like, ‘try to talk yourself out of it all you want, but we know it’s gonna be happening’.”
Odds are you and your partner will survive an orthopedic surgery residency program. Understanding you’re not alone and finding the support you need during residency will help increase those odds in your favor. From someone who knows, when residency is all over, a level of normalcy with better life balance does return. There is life… light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s the best. It is so great. You don’t go into medicine for the money, you go into medicine because you want to be in medicine, but having extra time, extra money, and extra resources is just this opportunity to breathe. It’s very healing.”
Learn more advice from Annaliesa’s experience in this article, Surgery Residency: Advice From Spouses.