“As physicians, we need to live through the hard parts in order to have empathy for those we care for” - Dr. Jocelyn Charles
In this episode, we chat with Dr. Jocelyn Charles, a family physician and associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. We learn about her experiences in leadership roles, how she started her first year of practice as a mom, and the importance of having a strong support system to keep you afloat.
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Dr. Jocelyn Charles, MSc., M.D.
Dr. Jocelyn Charles is a family physician at the Sunnybrook Academic Family Health Team, through which she provides comprehensive, interprofessional, team-based family medicine and contributes to family medicine education in an academic teaching unit. She also provides home-based primary care to frail seniors and housebound patients with a team of learners and interprofessional team members. She is an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto and the Medical Director of the Veterans Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Dr. Charles previously held the role of chair of Sunnybrook’s Medical Advisory Committee and served as the physician advisor, Primary Care, for the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network.
With a strong commitment to her own ongoing education, Dr. Charles has completed numerous leadership and quality improvement training programs, including the Master of Science in Community Health in Health Practitioner Teacher Education program at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health in 2010. She has participated in the development of the Toronto Central Primary Care Strategy and multiple models of care for veterans with dementia and complex health needs. She especially enjoys caring for frail seniors and teaching at the undergraduate, postgraduate, and master’s levels.
Radha Sharma: Welcome to Season 1 Episode 9 of Family Planning for Docs - Thriving or Surviving. This podcast is an extension of our platform at www.familyplanningfordocs.com a website created for Canadian medical trainees to highlight useful information about family planning in a medical career. Our research has demonstrated that personal stories are very impactful, and we hope to provide access to a diverse number of stories, to current trainees. On our podcast we hope to capture the stories of medical professionals who have navigated the training process and a medical career while planning parenthood, parenting and the supports along the way.
Radha Sharma: In this episode we have Dr. Jocelyn Charles. We are thrilled to have you on our podcast today. And we just want to thank you on behalf of the entire team for taking the time to share your story here today.
Jocelyn Charles: Happy to share it.
Radha Sharma: Amazing. So I'm going to start with an easy question first. What does the day in the life of Jocelyn look like?
Jocelyn Charles: So it's busy. From the time I get up to the time I hit my head on the pillow it's go, go, go! I never stop. I say yes, to way too many things. But I'm passionate and interested about so many things, and I deeply care about my patients. So it is busy.
Radha Sharma: And can you talk a little bit about how many years of training to get to where you are? I understand you’re a family physician, so if you could walk us through that timeline a little bit?
Jocelyn Charles: Yeah. My training involved nursing training before medicine. I didn't quite finish. I did 3 years of the BScN, But I switched into medicine for a number of reasons, and I went into family medicine, which I am passionate about. Love it. I love every day. I really enjoy care of the elderly. PGY3 didn't exist, so I made up my own and did care of the elderly and was hired on staff at Sunnybrook and right after I was offered the position, I realized I was pregnant. But I will get into that in a bit. And I've done some fun things in my career. I'm really passionate about vulnerable people, access to care. I've worked in long term care here in the Veterans Center my entire career. I've been in medical leadership since 1993. Now I teach leadership. I've been involved in the Ontario Health Teams and primary care, organization and development. I'm a professor in the department of family and community medicine. I teach, research quality improvement. Yes, so I've done lots of things, and there's never a dull moment, and I enjoy every single day.
Radha Sharma: Thank you for sharing that. It sounds like there is a laundry list of things that you do. You mentioned that. you're involved in leadership positions. How did you get involved with that in your career?
Jocelyn Charles: Mostly through arm twisting. My preceptor from family medicine, I guess, recognized that I had some leadership skills that I was totally unaware of. And said you'd be good in this leadership position, I think you should join. And so I did. And then I got worried that I didn't have any leadership skills. So I started taking leadership courses, and I've taken so many I probably can't count. And so I'm always thirsty to learn more. And I've had great mentors throughout my career. I still have great mentors, and I also mentor others. And there's a lot to learn from each other. So I've had lots of leadership positions. I've been the chief of my department. I'm the program chief here at the hospital. So I do hospital leadership. I do community leadership. I'm on the board of the Ontario College of Family Physicians because I feel like it's important to give back to our profession. And I've loved every leadership position I've had. I've learned a ton and it's really shaped who I am as a family physician and as a leader.
Radha Sharma: Like I mentioned before our goal is to chat with you and others about how you've kind of fit your family plans while also balancing this incredible career. What inspired you to start a family? What was your motivation?
Jocelyn Charles: Oh, I wanted a family my whole life. I'm from a big family. I'm in the middle of 4 brothers, and I have a sister as well, and my mother worked full time. So we all had our jobs to do, growing up. And my mother was also a feminist who thought women should have great careers, so there was no if ands or buts about that.
Jocelyn Charles: I actually was severely injured in a gymnastics accident, paralyzed, actually, and had 2 spinal surgeries. So I wanted to have my children young. I didn't want to run into any unnecessary complications. So I actually started my family in my late twenties. I got married in medical school after the first year. My husband knew I desperately wanted children, and so I had my son 2 months into my first job as an academic family physician. My son was born 7 weeks premature. He actually arrested at birth and was in the NICU on a ventilator. And women of today don't realize we only had 16 weeks maternity leave back then. So I had to go back to work when my son was 2 months corrected. My babysitter quit after 2 weeks and so, I had no family supports in Toronto. I started taking my son to daycare, and he then started getting very, very sick, and I would have to lug his nebulizer with me to the daycare center until his physician said, look, he's way too sick for daycare. And so I actually hired my Toronto emergency Nanny, that I kept hiring. I hired her permanently. And I've had, after her, I had some fantastic nannies. I had my last Nanny for 20 years, and my kids call her their second mother. She was fantastic, and I owe my career to her. She was great. She called in sick 3 days in 20 years, and she stayed on and worked overtime at the drop of a hat, and if she couldn't she would always find someone in the nanny community who could. So I owe her a lot.
Jocelyn Charles: So my first year in practice was a blur. I was exhausted because I actually had to get out every 4 hours to give my son a nebulizer, and my husband had to get up too because it took 2 of us around the clock. He needed them every 4 hours. So, that was through the winter of my first practice. And I was so exhausted. One thing I learned was that my fatigue was not going to kill me. As long as I drove safely and didn't harm a patient, I was going to be okay. And on my way to work, I would say to myself over and over again, You're gonna be okay. You're gonna make it through this day, and so I did. I had 2 more children at 3 years apart and I hired the Nanny after this. So my son ended up back in daycare and did really really well in that daycare. And then, after my second child, we hired the Nanny we had for 20 years. I had 3 children, 3 years apart. And I wanted four, but I had so many obstetrical complications that I was told. No, you're not, you know going to have any more. And because of my Nanny, I was able to and I have a fantastic husband and a great supportive family, I was able to have a great career and raise 3 children. So I got my cake and ate it too.
Radha Sharma: You have quite the journey there, to get where you are. That's incredible, though.
Jocelyn Charles: And at some point actually in 2006, when my kids were teenagers, I worked full time, and my, when I talk about full time, my hours are over 80 hours a week. I also did a Master's degree.
Radha Sharma: Wow.
Jocelyn Charles: And I can remember my kids - I would sit down on the computer at 11 o’clock at night to start writing my papers for my Master's course, and my my kids would say, Mom, I guess you weren't that well organized, or you wouldn't be sitting to do this at 11 o'clock at night, which is exactly what I would tell them. They would just be regurgitating it back at me. And I just told them, when you're working full time, raising three children and doing a Master's degree, we'll have chat.
Radha Sharma: Wait ‘till you're sitting at this desk at 11 pm in 20 years, and then we can have a conversation.
Radha Sharma: Do your children live near Toronto? Do you get to see them?
Jocelyn Charles: So my son just got married.
Radha Sharma: Congratulations to him!
Jocelyn Charles: He married a Ukrainian paramedic, absolutely adorable. And they're doing great. They live with her 93 year old grandmother and they're very happy. And my next child is my daughter, she lives in North Vancouver and she works in human resources, and we just helped them by a condo in Squamish. So we're excited about that. And then my youngest is an engineer mathematician, who just quit her job as a senior consultant to work on a farm and go off because she's into sustainable farming.
Radha Sharma: Right on!
Jocelyn Charles: And so we, with raising our children, we said, you do what you're passionate about. It's your life, make it what you want it to be, and we've just supported them in doing that.
Radha Sharma: That's beautiful. So they're kind of spread out a little bit, but still close by. I mean, Guelph is not too far.
Jocelyn Charles: Oh, she comes on the weekend, she's going back to work. This is just a summer to do something she's passionate about. Interesting story. So some women grapple with the guilt of working and not being there for your children, and so I would have open conversations with my kids about this. My kids went to a Montessori school for their elementary school, and you know my son would say to me, you know, mom, all the other mothers are there to pick up their children and you're not. And I'd say, well, if you want me to be there to pick you up from school, you won't be able to go to that school. You'll have to go to the public school, because, you know, I'm working and part of the benefit of me working is that you get to go to that school, and he said, then you just keep on working.
Radha Sharma: How old was he when you said that?
Jocelyn Charles: He was about, I don't know 6 or 7?
Radha Sharma: I think it's good to have those conversations early on, though, so that you know, a lot of our guests on the podcast have very small children. They're still small, like 5, 6 years old. And they always talk about how you know they miss kind of being at home all the time, and having this concept of sacrificing time. Can you talk to us a little bit about how that changes over time? Do kids kind of just get it? Eventually, you know, Mom has to go to work, and she still loves you. But that's how it is.
Jocelyn Charles: Yeah, it's really hard when they're little, I mean my middle one I’d bring her to Montessori. They had to peel her off me. And I would leave in tears. And they, you know, the teacher would tell me as soon as you're gone, she's fine. My son, when I drop him off. It was even more heart-wrenching, really. He would go to the window and waved by with the big tears rolling down his cheeks. And so I always felt terrible at that moment. I remember leaving this school with this gut-wrenching feeling, but then, when I get home, and they tell me all about their day, and how much fun it was, I realized, you know, spending the day with me would not have been as good as that, and eventually they get over that, you know. So it's that transition period where they, you know, they are clinging to you. And yet, you need to support them in developing a more independent program for them, so that they will develop as humans as you want them to. But I think probably the hardest was my youngest because she was really joined at the hip to me. She used to say to me regularly, with big tears rolling down her cheeks, who do I need to speak to at Sunnybrook to get my mother back?
Radha Sharma: Aw!
Jocelyn Charles: Imagine how gut wrenching, that is. And so it was really interesting because when she was in grade 12, she was working on this project and she was not coming down for a meal. She was just totally into this project. So I walked into a room, and I just said, we're doing a time out right here. I said, you know how much you love this project. Oh, yeah, yeah, it's so fantastic! I said, that's how much I love my work. And her jaw dropped open. And I said, Do you get it now? And she said, totally.
Radha Sharma: Wow.
Jocelyn Charles: So you know, yeah, you have to sort of think about it more of it as an investment. So you're going through these difficult times with your child. They need to know you love them, that you care for them, that you're there for them, but that you're also supporting their development. You're going to become a really independent, strong character, with your support in helping them develop that way, and my children all 3 are very independent, very self sufficient
and thank us regularly for raising them the way we did. So they don't come back now and say you should been home. Never heard that. They instead say, thank you for giving us all of the opportunities that you gave us, and so the only way I was able to do that was through my work. Right? All of the opportunities they got were because I was, you know, working, and also because I wasn't constantly there overseeing them. Because one time they said, you know, you should be at home, I said, do you know what it would be like if I was at home? And I actually went through a little bit of a scenario, and they all 3 looked at me and said, keep working.
Radha Sharma: They're like, never mind, that's okay.
Jocelyn Charles: They realized that they could get away with stuff with their Nanny that they would ever get away with. You know, my Nanny, she's a doll. She has such a great heart! But she could be manipulated by them and they knew they couldn't get away with that with me.
Radha Sharma: I guess it all worked out in the end.
Jocelyn Charles: That's right. It all worked out in the end. Even as children and teenagers. Oh, you know, people would say to them, are you going to be a doctor like your mom? And they would just, are you kidding? I'm not gonna work that hard and my husband's a lawyer, and they would say the same thing about him. But, you know, I think, what they would they take home for it is really the unsaid messages that they received which is, do what you're passionate about, do it well, work hard and care about your family. I think, the other sacrifice about a working physician-parent is that you don't have as much time for your own personal life, right? I actually was a Marathon runner when I was raising my kids, and so they knew if they wanted to have a really private in-depth conversation with me, they would hop on their bike while I went for a run.
Radha Sharma: I love that.
Jocelyn Charles: So they're all crazy fitness people, right? They're all into fitness and sports and stuff. And you know, and that's because they lived it right. But there is a sacrifice for you as a physician or a professional of any kind, and that is you can't have the social life that you have had before you. That is your sacrifice. You work, you look after your kids. You have great fun with your family. You do need some social life, but it needs to be tailored to make sure your children get as much of you as they can.
Radha Sharma: Jocelyn, if you had a magic wand and could somehow go back in time and change anything about your life, would you? And why? Or if not, why.
Jocelyn Charles: I don't think I'd change anything. Because I think, even the hard parts, I think times when you didn't do what you probably, if you would, could go back and do differently - we learn more from that than we do from success? Right? So it shapes who you are. It shapes, I think some of the most difficult times in my life are what make me who I am today. Right? I'm far more resilient than I used to be. As physicians, we need to live through the hard parts right in order to have empathy for those we care for. So no, I don't think I'd change a thing. I think I've been blessed with a great family and a great husband - you know a family of origin, plus my current family. And it's not perfect, but I love them all the way they are
Radha Sharma: So well said.Do you have any advice for any of our listeners, may be medical students or residents in their training? Any advice you have for physicians-to-be?
Jocelyn Charles: I would say, do what you're passionate about. You do need to set some limits, and I'm probably the pot calling the kettle black. I’m not good at it. I strongly recommend if you want a family, go for it, there's no perfect time. Don't wait, just do it. And it's probably the most fun thing ever to have a family of your own, and it will inform you like it's one, a great teacher as a family physician, because the advice you're going to be able to give to your patients as a parent is very valuable. From a family perspective, go for it, have fun, and enjoy every minute of it.
Radha Sharma: Thank you. And the last question in the name of the podcast Jocelyn, are you thriving or surviving at this moment?
Jocelyn Charles: This month I'm surviving. But overall I'm thriving. There are moments where I feel like I'm just surviving. But you have to know that those will pass.
Radha Sharma: Those will pass. So overall thriving with a little bit of surviving. We just want to give you another thank you again for sitting down and chatting with me today. It was an absolute pleasure getting to know a little bit more about your story. You can find our guest’s contact information and additional information about anything mentioned in the show in the notes from today's show. This is Radha and Jocelyn signing off.
Jocelyn Charles: Great, thanks a lot Radha.