I met my husband my second day on campus at Northwestern University, 1991. He started one year ahead of me; I met him in the bookstore. He was an established molecular biology major, having years of laboratory research experience behind him already. I, too, decided to major in biology, but with a concentration in physiology. The micro and the macro–that may describe us in a nutshell: Both awed by the mysterious and yet completely logical ways of the body—the ultimate integrated system—but from opposite ends of the spectrum. We trained at the University of Chicago, that mecca of hard core basic science. Research and discovery of the fundamental mechanisms of disease—much of it at the molecular level—still thrills him, and leaves me positively lethargic. Show me how people transform health through relationships and beliefs, how the mind and body are connected in ways we cannot measure—that seizes my attention.
Today my husband specializes in orthopaedic tumors and joint replacement, and I do primary care. Much of his professional world consists of binary decision making: operate or not, the experiment proved the hypothesis or not. I like exploring multiple solutions for a particular problem, withholding judgment, and trying one approach at a time. Personally, he likes to be alone; I love people, the more the better! He makes decisions based largely on data and devoid of emotions, whereas I root my decision trees firmly in how I feel about the issue at hand. I seek color, texture, and meaning in everything around me; his needs are pragmatic, functional, and stoic.
And yet, what seems contrasting and opposed turns out to be, in every sense of the word, complementary. For the most part, we both balance objective and empathic information when making decisions. But when my emotions run high and objective data look fuzzy, he points out the practical implications of my choices. When he faces decisions that impact relationships, I help him identify core values that lead him to settle on one side of an issue with confidence. When both people in a relationship are free to be fully themselves, without fear of judgment or ridicule, their differences, and respective strengths, hold each other up.
The most interesting conversations we have about work revolve around teaching. As a surgeon, his primary charge is to prepare his trainees to be technically excellent in the operating room, to carry out patient care decisions with confidence and resolve. Nobody wants a wishy-washy surgeon. My teaching focuses on fostering empathy, role modeling excellent listening skills, and showing students that no matter what specialty they choose, their patients will always need to feel seen, heard, understood, and cared for. In primary care, the old saying, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” has explicit meaning. I like to think that because of me, my husband models more mindful interpersonal skills for his residents and students. And because of him, I try always to incorporate evidence and concrete, goal-oriented rationale in my decision making. We influence each other for the better.
The long-standing tension between surgeons and non-surgeons remains a fact of life in medicine today. Stereotypes peg internists as ruminating and indecisive, and orthopaedists as dull-witted, mallet-wielding carpenters. This territorial, oppositional culture can be insidious and damaging. How can we do best by our patients if we cannot get along ourselves? In our ‘mixed’ marriage, I see us bridging this gap. I hope it translates to better patient care. For ourselves, at least, it makes for interesting dinner conversation and a shared love for our work. And we would not have it any other way. Footnote: I first published this post on the American Holistic Medical Association blog in 2012.