“You have to have the mindset to just deal and keep moving. And I feel that was something that helped me through those tough years”. - Dr. Sony Sierra
In this episode, we chat with Dr. Sony Sierra, an OB/GYN and REI specialist. We talk about how mentorship was integral to her journey as a medical trainee and now, as a practicing physician. We delve into what it’s been like being a single mom and a physician, and what positive role modeling can look like for your teenagers.
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Dr. Sony Sierra, MSc., M.D.
Since 2006, Dr. Sony Sierra has been a Reproductive Endocrinologist and Infertility Specialist, as well as a specialist in recurrent pregnancy loss. Alongside her role as Deputy Medical Director and Partner at TRIO, Dr. Sierra is the Medical Director at EVOLVE Egg Freezing Clinic. In addition to her fertility practice, Dr. Sierra and Dr. Carl Laskin also run the early Recurrent Pregnancy Loss (RPL) program — the largest program of its kind in Canada.
Dr. Sierra is an Associate Physician at Women’s College Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the University of Toronto.
Radha Sharma: Welcome to Season 1 Episode 14 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 group has a mission to inform medical trainees about their options regarding family planning while navigating training, career, and personal life. Our research has demonstrated that personal stories are highly 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 also planning parenthood, parenting and the support that they had along the way.
Radha Sharma: In this episode we have Dr. Sony Sierra, we are thrilled to have you on our podcast today and again, thank you on behalf of the entire team for taking the time to sit down and chat with me.
Sony Sierra: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you for inviting me.
Radha Sharma: Amazing. So we'll get started with the first question, what does a day in the life of Sony look like?
Sony Sierra: Okay? Well, the day in the life of me is - I get up oh, no particulars. I get up early. I usually have a few minutes to sort of think and plan my day, and what I'm going to wear. I take the dog, feed the dog, get ready, get my kids out. I'm lucky enough that I start work at 9, usually, unless I'm in the operating room, so I always drive them to school and then I go to the office pretty much office based work, sometimes hospital, sometimes procedures and operating room but usually packed days at least until 5, if not sometimes a little bit longer, depending on paperwork and at meetings and whatnot. And then, usually home, have dinner with my girls, and then sometimes more work, sometimes just fetching, hanging out with them and playing with my dog, and then sleep, and it all starts again.
Radha Sharma: And the cycle repeats.
Sony Sierra: And the cycle repeats, exactly.
Radha Sharma: We'll get more into your kids later. But what kind of dog do you have? I'm curious.
Sony Sierra: A Portuguese water dog.
Radha Sharma: Oh, my gosh, so cute.
Sony Sierra: Yeah, she's very cute. She doesn't seem so bright, but it is a bright breed. I think it's just because she's still a puppy and overly excitable every single chance you get.
Radha Sharma: For the listeners that may not know Dr. Sierra is an REI specialist. Can you tell us a little bit about what your day to day kind of tasks entail, and maybe how much training or how many years of training it took you to get to where you are now?
Sony Sierra: Okay. So I guess I can start with the training path I took. So I did a whole bunch of degrees. I think I loved being a student. So I did my undergrad at UofT. And I studied Bio, Psych, English Lit and Art History.
Radha Sharma: Wow!
Sony Sierra: And then I did a masters in Rehab, and it was pretty much a research based Master’s program and then I was gonna continue on with the research but then I applied to medicine and my PhD and ended up at UofT medicine. I think I'm more of a doer as opposed to a thinker, so I always thought I was destined for some kind of a surgical special team. But when I hit my OB/GYN rotation, I think that's where the mentoring kicked in, and the residents I was with really inspired me, and it helped because I had just come off my general surgery rotation where I didn't get inspired at all, and I loved the work. But it was just, it was different kinds of people at that time. And so I ended up applying to OB/GYN, and very lucky to get accepted at UofT. And then, during my training here again, mentorship played a huge role in sort of directing my career path into REI. And I think I got into this field via interest during medical school into recurrent pregnancy loss. And then I went from UofT to do some electives in Vancouver with an amazing dynamic mentor who really influenced and helped, not just in my career path, but also, you know, on a personal basis and kids and everything. She is an awesome lady. And so I ended up, after UofT residency, I ended up applying for an REI fellowship, and I went to Vancouver for that, and then followed my mentor to Chicago as well. And then came back and started working.
Sony Sierra: And I work at, like I said primarily, in reproductive endocrinology and infertility. Half of my practice, at least, is in recurrent pregnancy loss patients. and then the other half is infertility and egg freezing. I do most of my work, I would say 90% of my work is done at a fertility clinic, Trio Fertility. And then I also work at the hospital twice a month, doing polycystic ovarian syndrome clinic. So that sort of along the same reproductive endocrine field. But it's nice to get out of, you know, a private clinic setting and go to the hospital and work with residents and colleagues, and sort of still keep keep my foot in a little bit with the hospital and academic life as well. And then also I do get residents, happy enough to have residents join me, fellows, join me in my office, and then do some teaching at the university as well.
Radha Sharma: Thank you for sharing that with us. It sounds like mentorship was a really key part for you during both medical school and residency. How did you connect with those mentors? Was it an organic relationship? Did you seek them out yourself?
Sony Sierra: It was, it was sort of organic. I always had an interest in women's health, so I think that I, the very first mentor, the very first female physician I worked with was actually Donna Stewart, and she's a psychiatrist. I think she's probably close to retirement now but she was a powerhouse, and she did a lot of psychiatric research, women's mental health in the area of reproductive health as well. So I worked with her as a summer student during my undergraduate and so, you know, you just kind of just get to see how people can have very fulfilling careers, at the same time being a wife and mother and being extremely productive at. But she was my earliest mentor in medicine, I would say and then, during my Master’s, I was also mentored by her name’s, Sharon Burke, and she was a nurse researcher at Queen's University again, a powerhouse single mom, actually and very productive. And you know, really really fostered my learning and took me under her wings, so to speak, in terms of exposing me to sort of the research process, traveling for meetings and conferences and things like that. During residency, I credit my career choice to one of my mentors, Ellen Greenblatt who still works and she sort of was the one who introduced me to infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss through the rotation, but again, really took an interest in me as an individual, and what I would find interesting, and she actually introduced me to Mary, who then mentored the rest of my professional career.
Sony Sierra: And you know life is what it is, and you end up in a situation that you're living your best life professionally and then you have children, and then I'm no longer married. And so you end up being a single mom. And it's amazing that along the way, a lot of the mentors that I was to ended up in a very similar career path. So it's not just that they mentored me during my early days, when I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do, but even on a personal basis, when circumstances were such that I now am a single mom trying to do everything you turn back and were like, Okay, well, how did you cope when that happened to you? And how did your kids turn out and your relationship with your kids? And so they've really been amazing, amazing supports for me along the way, for sure.
Radha Sharma: That's so incredible to hear that you had strong women in your circle that you could refer to especially if you know, if you have something going on in your life path that you have a question about. It's nice to know that you can kind of give someone a ring, and they might have an answer for you. They might not. They might just be, you know, a support system in that moment. But yeah, mentorship is so important.
Radha Sharma: Like, I mentioned earlier in the podcast our goal is to chat with you and other medical professionals about how they fit sort of family planning with this amazing medical career, and how they've been able to balance it all. Did you always know that you wanted to be a mom? Or was that something that came later in life?
Sony Sierra: I think it came later in life. I don't think I ruled it out. You know there are some people who are just like it's not for me. I don't want to. I think I just got married a little bit later. And then, even after I got married, despite being in reproductive endocrine and infertility, I wasn't thinking about it. I actually didn't even start to think about it until well, after I turned 35. I recognize now I was very lucky but it was just one of those things. It was like, okay, I've got the career that I want to have. I'm married. It just seemed like the next thing to do and sort of got into it without really thinking about the full consequence and the full impact that that would have. But yeah, that's how the decision was made.
Radha Sharma: And when did you decide to have children then?
Sony Sierra: I got married at 35. And I got my first pregnancy at 37, and then my second I was 39. Literally, I was going to stop trying when I turned 40, because I thought that was in my head. That was just the marker. And so I was lucky enough to get pregnant just before that fortieth birthday, like a month before. So yeah, I was very lucky.
Radha Sharma: Can you talk to us a little bit about how it was like balancing your practice with having you know young kids?
Sony Sierra: Yeah. Well, I wasn't - because I did a Master’s before when I was in my first pregnancy, I was still in fellowship.
Radha Sharma: Oh okay.
Sony Sierra: I was finishing up fellowship. So I had my baby, and she was 8 weeks old, and I had to put her on a plane and go back to Vancouver and finish my fellowship. So that was her first flight. She was 8 weeks. I still remember that outfit she wore and everything, but you know I had my parents come with me, and my sister, and and we just sort of tag teamed and managed her as I finished up my fellowship. And then II came back home and took a couple of months off to just sort of get things organized, and then in September started my practice with a nanny in place so that I could work full time and not really worry. I had a very supportive family. I had my mom and dad very close to sort of north of the city. Their dad was busy with work, but we did have a nanny at that time as well. So those were my supports, really. And they were important supports to have because, you know, I started off my career still wanting to to be a little bit academic. So there was always a little bit of conference and travel, and not just a 9 to 5 work shift. So, having that support of family that was able to help out and travel with me and the baby to these meetings was really helpful. So I didn't really, there was nothing that I couldn't do because I had the baby.
Radha Sharma: Sounds like you had an entourage with you.
Sony Sierra: I had an entourage, yes.
Radha Sharma: I love that.
Radha Sharma: When you think back to when you first had your kids, were there any challenges, you know, being in a fellowship or starting your practice while also balancing being a parent, that kind of come to your mind?
Sony Sierra: Time was always a factor. My job now where I'm at like, I said. It is pretty much 9 to 5. It's a large practice. It's not that onerous in terms of early mornings or on call. But when the kids were really little, I was still working at a practice where we would have to be there earlier and do ultrasound and cycle monitoring. I was still doing Gyne call for surgery, so sometimes middle of the night calls, weekend calls so that was a little difficult. When my youngest daughter was 3, I think I had a little bit of epiphany in terms of you know I didn't really feel like I was connecting with her because I was up and out of the house at 7. I didn't do drop off to Daycare or pick up. I didn't know who she was going to daycare with the other moms and I felt like I needed to make some changes. So that's when I changed my practice location and joined a bigger practice where, like I said, I don't have to start till 9, and even back then, it's a huge practice now, but back then there was at least, you know, 4 or 5 docs. So it was one in 4 or 5 weekends. I gave up overnight call. Those were the things that I did differently when they were little, and it made a big difference for just feeling a little bit more connected with their lives at that time.
Radha Sharma: I want to touch on something you mentioned about being a single mom. I actually lost my father a few years ago now and just seeing how my mom has kind of played both roles in my life, I guess, for the most part, and I'm sure that other listeners, maybe have had that experience. How have you noticed being a single mom has kind of shaped you being a parent, if it has in any way?
Sony Sierra: It's been different at different stages of their lives. So I guess the single mom started when the little one was still just about 6. So it was hard, right? Because I feel like when they're little, it is really consuming in terms of, even though you work a full day and you have a nanny - you're still the mom, like you're still the one that they want. If there is something missing that they need for school, even when you're married, right? Like, it's the mom who's gonna go and get all of that stuff. So you sort of have so many different hats like you go to work, you have a full day at work sometimes. If you have any sort of admin or research interest, it's a full day plus then you come home and your second job starts, and you have to be there for the kids and do all of the stuff that they need from you. And sometimes your days are just so full like you're just literally brain dead and exhausted by the end of it, and when they were little, sometimes I would lie in bed before you sleep, because you're so wound up it takes a while to fall asleep, and you just feel like, Oh, my God! What did I accomplish today? And you do this mental list of all the things you did today. And sometimes you just sit there like in absolute amazement. Did I really complete all that? But you do, you just you just go through it and the kids change their needs now they're teenagers. Now they come home and they go into their room and they shut the doors. It's like, Okay, it's easy. I don't have to put anyone to bed. I don't have to read bedtime stories. I don't have to lie there until they fall asleep, all of a sudden my evenings have come back to me. So it's just a whole different, a different world now. But, you know it was work.
I won’t lie, my kids were with me every time, like I didn't have an arrangement where they spent time with their father and with me they've been with me the whole time, so it was hard but it is truly like a labor of love, because I was exhausted and I couldn't probably think straight some days, but somehow everything got done and and they thrive through it. And I think in the big picture it's just a bond. And because they're both girls like they are my best friends yeah, I think that, I hope they think the same thing, but you know, even though it was hard, it was a struggle.
Sony Sierra: At the end of the day. I hope It worked out well for us. And I think you just keep doing what you need to do. You just really have to just do it when things come up and you have to have the mindset to just deal and keep moving. And I feel that was something that helped me through those tough years. Well I don’t think I performed, like excelled in any specific area for sure, and my kids will tell you that. They'll be the first to tell you I’m the worst mom on the block. But it got done. They grew, so it got done.
Radha Sharma: You did the amount of work that was expected of you, which is fine.
Sony Sierra: I didn't ever have snacks or water in my car like I wasn't that kind of mom. I didn't attend every single field trip at the school. I didn't do any of the parenting, like I wasn't a school parent or anything. But I hope they still have managed okay.
Radha Sharma: You mentioned that they are teenagers now, how old are they?
Sony Sierra: So my eldest is 17, and my younger one's 14.
Radha Sharma: So are they in that phase where they just don't want to talk to you at all?
Sony Sierra: They do, but it's almost like they want something for when they talk so you feel completely used and abused at this stage. But they have moments. So they're both away for the first time ever at camp and stuff. So I get a lot of you know I miss you letters, I love you letters. Meanwhile, if they were home they would just like to be in their rooms with their door shut, and I would never hear that. But no, they're good.
Radha Sharma: What were some, I guess, unexpected challenges of being a parent, maybe, if you think back to, you know, when they were younger to now, them being teenagers and kind of having their own adult lives almost?
Sony Sierra: Well for me, I think you know, I didn't sign up to do this on my own. I think a lot of people do, and I have friends and colleagues that did choose to have children on their own and do it on their own. So you know, being a single mom was not something I planned or expected, and it did come with a challenge, especially in our relationship where they were with me all the time, but again I leaned heavily on my friends and family, and we got through. Also mentors, you know, Mary Stephenson, who mentored my recurrent loss work, she was a single mom, and I remember she told me, her son was young, and she said I just bought him like a little desk, and I put it in my office, and I gave him something to color and write while I did my work.
Sony Sierra: And I remember her telling me that I was like, that's a good idea I could try that, too. But no, my little one, I bought her a desk with the table. She drew all over the desk and drew over everything. It just didn't work. It didn't work like no children are the same. But I think, having having sort of those sort of mentors and resources, and even if it was just to lean on and say, Oh, my God, this is a crazy world! This is a crazy life, and just get reassurance that it will pass. We do get through it right. That was always very, very helpful.
Radha Sharma: What's been the best thing about being a parent, and I know there's probably a million things you could list off, or maybe some not so great things. But what are, I guess, yeah, things that come to your mind and things you look forward to when you see your daughters?
Sony Sierra: Well, like I said, they're your best friends. I think that, you know, I absolutely love my career. I love my job. I get up in the morning, this is like a hundred percent, my happy place.
But those kids top top this right? So they are sort of the reason for pretty much everything I do. And yeah, it gives you balance, and it gives you sort of a sense of companionship. And it's nice to sort of eventually be there for them, and almost like try to mentor them learning from your mistakes or your experience. So it's like, kind of like these little experiments looking around. And and we're gonna see how they turn out. But no, I think that I can't describe like, what is the best part of having kids, you know, it's sort of unconditional joy and love and you know that the hard things are the hard things. But, that happens regardless, like, it's not always easy. Right? You're gonna have hard things in life. And we're going to have to go through, children are going to have their own experience. There's going to be good days and bad days, and as they get older, you know, it's difficult now coming up to university decisions and letting them go and do their own things. And that's gonna be hard. But again, like I said, it's an opportunity for mentorship. And and just see! See what kind of impact you have on them, and see what kind of impact the life I lead has on them. Right? Like I'll tell you, my younger one always said to me for years she was like you know, I don't think I want to go to university. I think I want to be a stay at home mom. I don't want to be like you, mom. I want to be like - her aunt is a stay at home, mom, she's like, I want to have babies young, and I want to be like that, and have snacks in my person, you know, like, just be that kind of mom. And when she first said it I was like, Ouch! Like that was hurtful. But you know, like it, it changes. So now I think if you asked her, she probably wouldn't say the same thing. But if that's her decision, and that's her path. Well, then, that's her decision. I'm not like I'm not going to say one way or another. My older one, she would never say anything like that, you know. I don't know if she'll have my exact same path in life, but I think you know, I've motivated her to do something. We'll see what that ends up being. But yeah.
Radha Sharma: I was gonna ask you, because for your daughter that's 17, like university is right around the corner. Has she talked to you about what she wants to do if she wants to emulate your career, or maybe elements of your journey?
Sony Sierra: Yeah, she does. She's always said she wants to do medicine, but it's really funny, because it wasn't like I wanna do this and be like you mummy, she wants to do medicine because she bing watched Grey's anatomy one summer she was like 13, and that was it. That was all she wanted to do. But no, she's always wanted to do it. But it was funny, because last year, she goes to an IB program for school, and her grades in the humanities were way higher than the sciences. So now she's wondering, you know maybe she's not meant to do medicine. I don't know where she's at. She’s in Scotland right now for a month, she's doing this summer medicine experience in a university there to sort of dip her toes and see if she really loves it. So she's still open. But, I would be happy if she went to a good university and kind of studied everything. I mean not to the extent that I did, but at least you know, study for the sake of learning, and then define herself. I say that and I realize that it's kind of maybe a little unrealistic because the world is so competitive now, and you know I've seen med school applications, and maybe that's not the best advice to give her. But we'll see. We'll see when she comes back from this month away, and we'll see if she's still as keen on a medical career and then where she ends up.
Radha Sharma: Sony, we ask all of our guests this, if you had a magic wand and could go back and change anything about your life, it doesn't necessarily have to be about family planning, maybe about your career would you go back? If so, why, if not, why?
Sony Sierra: Well, I will say I look back and the one thing I wish, I mean it's terrible because I have my children, and I know I'm blessed, and I'm happy. But I wish I paid a little bit more attention to family planning and had them a little earlier, and I don't even have an explanation as to why. Well, I didn't meet, I didn't get married. That was part of it. But I also wasn't in the mindset to seek out a husband to get married to have a baby either. Not that that's the right thing to do either. Especially nowadays, there's so many options for women. And the other thing is, I was lucky I didn't have fertility problems, but not everybody who delays their children to the age that I did are that lucky. I just feel like, yeah, if I was younger I could have been a younger grandma. I could have, you know, experienced things, but we'll see, you try to keep active, try to keep fit, so I can still experience all that stuff, and we'll see.
Radha Sharma: Do you have any advice for medical trainees, whether they be medical students, residents, maybe physicians that are early on in their career?
Sony Sierra: Something I'm a very, very huge supporter of is seeking out mentors like, I really credit my mentors in terms of like I said, my career choice, and being the most amazing supports throughout the career, whether it was related to sort of my studies, research my choices in my career, or personal like with the kids and and upbringing and juggling, you know, juggling work and all of the stuff that comes with kids. I think that mentors, and a sense of community amongst you know, like minded or people who have similar experiences are so important. And that's why I think, you know, when I heard about this effort Shirin was doing, I was, I was like totally blown away, it's amazing, and I think getting medical trainees early to start thinking about this and seeking out advice and mentorship is priceless. So good.
Radha Sharma: Thank you for reiterating some of the goals of the website and of the podcast and for sharing wisdom about mentorship. It's very, very important. I feel like the earlier that people have access to these resources, it kind of plants the seed, at least for those that may be interested in being a parent one day to at least have the resources to do so. And you know, hear about how other people did it, because I'm always curious.
Sony Sierra: How does everyone do it all? We don't even know how we do it all. It just gets done, it’s there.
Radha Sharma: Yeah. When you said some nights you're just lying down and thinking about all the things you got done, and you don't even know how you did it. That was, it sounds like a very authentic experience.
Sony Sierra: Yeah.
Radha Sharma: And Sony, the last question for today in the name of our podcast is, are you thriving or surviving?
Sony Sierra: So I would say, 90% of the time, I feel like I'm surviving. And in those moments when I'm like, Wow! Look at all the things that I accomplished today, that's when I feel like I'm thriving.
Radha Sharma: I love that response.
Radha Sharma: We just want to give you another thank you on behalf of the entire team for coming and sitting with me today. I learned so much about your journey, and I hope our listeners take away some of those key messages about mentorship. You can find our guests' contact information in the notes from today's show. This is Radha and Sony signing off.