The Road Not Taken

Life is a series of choices that we make (duh). We decide where to go to college, who to date, who to marry, and if and when to have children. As a future doctor, you decide where to go to medical school, what specialty to enter, and where to go to residency – or at least where to apply for residency! It seems simple at the time, and each choice affects the next. Knowing that I wanted to have a family as well as a demanding career prompted me to end a long-term relationship with a wonderful man who wanted a demanding career of his own, and who wanted a wife who would take care of the kids and cook dinner. Choosing to get married (to a different man who is much more supportive of my career) between college and medical school, and choosing to attend a medical school that is family-friendly helped me make the choice to have a child during school. Having a family is influencing my choices about where to complete my residency – I don’t want to raise a child in East LA, or in an apartment in New York, so residencies in those areas weren’t on my list. Every so often, though, you find yourself looking back at the series of choices that you have made and wondering, what if? What if, several choices ago, I had taken the other road?

One Of my residency interviews triggered just such a moment.

As I said earlier, I chose many years ago to end a long romantic relationship, not because the relationship wasn’t working at the time but because our dreams for the future were not compatible: it’s hard for a doctor (let alone a surgeon) to follow her spouse as he moves around the country every few years, or to have dinner on the table at seven. The person who made up the other half of this relationship was less than thrilled with me, and we haven’t spoken since. I have heard from mutual friends that he is living his dream working in Washington, DC. It sounds like he is happy. (I hope he is happy – he deserves to be! After all, I walked away from a stable relationship so that he could have everything he dreamed of, without my career getting in his way.)

On my way back to my hotel from the pre-interview dinner at a program in the DC area, it suddenly hit me: this was the road not taken. Here, years later, I was standing at a crossroads between the path that I chose for my life and the alternative that I rejected. It was like standing at an intersection, peeking around the corner – I could see just a little distance back in time down that alternative path, and just a little ways forwards. I could see how, if I had married the first man, we would have moved to DC after college. I would have applied to all of the medical schools in the DC area, and hopefully I would have been accepted right away. We would have lived in an apartment in the city. I wouldn’t have gotten a dog. He would be traveling for work, so we would delay having children. When the time came to apply to residencies, I would be applying to all of the DC programs again, hoping to remain in the area. I would not have taken a military scholarship, so I would have $300k in loans to pay off. I would match to a program in or around DC, and we would continue our lives.

Standing here at the crossroads, I can’t see how the alternative story ends. I can’t see whether we eventually have children, buy a house, get a dog. I can’t see which of us has to give something up in order to have a family: does he stop traveling for work, do I give up surgery? Do we delay starting our family until we have can afford a nanny for those nights when he is gone and I am on call? Do we give up on having children altogether? Do we simply start to resent each other and drift apart?

From this new perspective, though, one thing remains clear: one of us would have had to sacrifice our dreams and passions for the other. By this time I am back at the hotel, where my husband and daughter are fast asleep. I kiss them both on the cheek and snuggle up. As I drift to sleep, I can’t help thinking that I made the right choice.

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