American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

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The doctor is out: When the job must come first, make sure kids know why

From the June ACP Observer, copyright 2005 by the American College of Physicians.

By Janet Colwell

SAN FRANCISCO—As the son of a respected doctor in small-town Mississippi, Phillip Gillespie led a privileged childhood. But while his father was highly visible in the community, he was rarely seen at home.

"My dad used to take calls from patients in the middle of the night, and many of his patients loved him," said Mr. Gillespie, who is now a New York attorney. "He loved being a doctor but the downside was that he didn't have much time with us."

That was a common refrain among the three speakers at the "Children of Internists Speak Out: How to be a Physician and a Parent" presentation during Annual Session. All three came admire their parents—but said understanding the priorities of a physician didn't come easy during childhood.

"The job came first," recalled Mr. Gillespie, whose father retired at age 72. "Now I respect his dedication, but I wish he had talked to me when I was young about why his job was so important."

Communication is crucial, especially when a parent and child have limited time together, noted speaker Katy McCue, of Portland, Ore. While her father often didn't know the details of her daily life, he made a point of explaining why he was away.

"He told me that I was a priority, even if I wasn't his first priority all the time," she said. "I never dismissed my dad's absence as his choice because I knew his profession called him—and when he did show up for something, I felt extremely important."

Sharing something specific with each child is one way to show them how much they matter, Ms. McCue added. For example, her father carved out time to teach her how to read, help her learn to drive and coach her eighth-grade soccer team.

Sarah L. Clever, ACP Member, was the only speaker who chose a career in internal medicine. The daughter of two physicians, she said she benefited from having a strong female role model.

"My mother always made it clear to me that I could become a physician," said Dr. Clever. Her parents also modeled how to balance work with family. Despite their hectic schedules, they both made a point of being home for dinner every night.

All three speakers had one more piece of advice for physician parents: Don't make a point of being your child's clinician.

Ms. McCue recalled incidents when her father missed her brother's broken leg and her own broken arm. Mr. Gillespie said he never had a formal checkup until he was in college because all health care issues were handled at home. Dr. Clever also recalled one misdiagnosis, but noted that her mother normally took her to a pediatrician outside of the family.

On the plus side, physicians' passion for their career can positively influence how their children perceive the world.

"I felt like a member of an elite club with an inside track to helping others," said Ms. McCue. "My father taught me a lot about passion and empathy, and that it's not OK to be a bystander."

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