Altruism & Medical Families

September 16, 2020

Altruism & Medical Families

By Anne Lewis

Altruism = all-too-ism, all-too-giving = all-too-selfless.

I harbor a deep love for my father, a family doctor. During much of my childhood in Belfast, N. Ireland he was an absent presence in my life. He did two clinics a day, home visits, dental anesthetics, coroner’s exams and homebirths. In what should've been our living room he took family histories, examined and prescribed for the people of the nearby housing estate. We lived in the dark cramped quarters in the back. Imagine the servants in the kitchen of a Dickens novel. OK not really. That’s my five-year old’s imagination talking, but you get my drift. Medicine took up all the home space.

The Belfast of that era fierce-brewed sectarian violence. When I was 16 Dad told me to pick a university "across the water” and go find a nice husband. My escape from the bombings saved me in so many ways, but the separation was a loss for our entire family. I mourn that truncated connection with my father - those chats in the car, the joking around at mealtimes, and his gentle influence on my hot-headedness. I never thought until recently what a sacrifice he made and how that must have affected him.

Altruism is a deep and ingrained pattern in medical families. It’s in the air we breathe. I've been married to a physician for 32 years. What is this altruism that I was born to, that I married into and is deep in my bones? Altruism has been defined as the “unselfish concern for the welfare of others, and has been considered an inherent part of a doctor’s profession at least since the Hippocratic oath.” *

When I met my husband, I felt a subtle flash of recognition that chimed in with the family dynamics of my youth. I sensed something that would become the pattern, the expectation and the social project of our marriage. We were both professionals who went to work every day (he at a rehab hospital, in his private office and in several residential settings, me in my broadcast journalism career). And then there was this other thing: the gravitational forcefield of medicine that sucked on our lives. Altruism: I call it all-too-ism. As in all-too-giving, all-too-selfless, all-too-putting-oneself-and-one’s-family-last.

My husband was able to massage his schedule to be available for our offspring at every important event and to be present and alive at home. But I saw how the lack of support at work gradually ate into his energy. He loves being a doctor. I am proud of the contribution he is makes. But there is all-too-much of these demands. For many years it added up to a huge workload with no guaranteed time off. He always insisted on taking the high moral ground and would never abandon his patients. We had a 30-month stretch when no away time was possible. (The vacation that followed was the one when I was knocked down by a car, ending my journalism career and setting me on the path to become a coach.)

Every medical family’s elasticity and willingness keeps the medical system running. Our self-abnegation is expected in favour of the pressing healthcare needs of others. We love it, are proud of it, we resent it and are angry about it. It moves in and we are grafted to it like an extra organ in our chests. We are tired beyond tired. Because eventually that elasticity can go brittle, the willingness to self-sacrifice can go sour. And we question how do we put the caring part into balance?

There’s all that equalizing work for us to do.  My clients find self-leadership in the most unsuspected places. We work through the grief of lost careers and the dream of independence. We flush out useless internal narratives and imagine better ones. We consider the appearance the world has of us as financially secure, versus the reality of near-poverty. We make room for the jealousy and resentment and guilt and pain and swear we accept it’s okay to feel them. We get beyond those mental routines spewed out by our unrelenting inner saboteurs. We even put ourselves first, yes, hopefully and maybe only for a brief moment in time. Ssshhh, don’t say we do that. But we do. And I have to add, from the benefit of my own 32 years in medical marriage, honestly it works out, it’s all worth it, and you’re doing the right thing, even when you think you aren’t. Because we are heartfelt, caring people who walk in kindness, compassion and love. That’s what we saw in one another at the outset. Right?

I look forward to hearing from you at Anne@MeCoaching.Me

Anne Lewis is a professional certified coach and the founder of MeCoaching.Me, a coaching resource for self-leadership.

* British Medical Journal 2002