“You can still have, you know, a wholesome, fulfilling and satisfying life, even if you always wanted kids and don't get them as you go through life” - Dr. Sarah Patterson
In this episode, we chat with Dr. Sarah Patterson, a Hematologist. We talk about how family plans don’t always go to plan, her journey as a married physician without children, and the importance of finding your people.
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Dr. Sarah Patterson, M.D.
Sarah Patterson is a Hematologist working in the McMaster Hemoglobinopathy Clinic at Hamilton Health Sciences in Hamilton, Ontario. She completed medical school at Queen’s University and her internal medicine and adult hematology residencies at McMaster University.
Radha Sharma: Welcome to Season 1 Episode 15 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 planning parenthood, parenting and the support that they had along the way.
Radha Sharma: In this episode, we have Dr. Sarah Patterson. 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 share your story today.
Sarah Patterson: Thank you. I'm pretty pleased to be here.
Radha Sharma: awesome. We'll start off with an easy question. What does a day in the life of Sarah or Dr. Patterson look like?
Sarah Patterson: it depends very much on where I am, because I sit in a number of different roles. I'm a hematologist with a focus on red cell disorders so I have a share in a practice of Sickle Cell, Thalassemia and a number of other red blood cell disorders and I supervise them in clinic, I round on them in the medical day care, and then beyond that, I also have a benign hematology practice, where I take care of a whole assortment of things like autoimmune, hemolytic anemia, pancytopenia not yet diagnosed, and a whole host of other fun blood problems.
Radha Sharma: Amazing. And can you walk us through what the training process looks like for you? How many years of residency did that take? If you did any fellowships, etc.?
Sarah Patterson: So I did 3 years of internal medicine, and then 2 years of hematology. I took a break after that, because it felt like enough school and I locumed for 2 years while I decided where exactly I wanted to fit myself in at which point I agreed to come back and further my red cell education. I did just under 2 years of fellowship for that as well as a combined clinical scholar year. And I'm just starting as staff now. So it's very exciting.
Radha Sharma: Awesome and congratulations on becoming staff! I know that's a huge deal, a lot of the listeners on our podcast may be trainees that are either in med school or residency. So, are you excited to be starting a staff? Are you gonna miss anything about residency and fellowship?
Sarah Patterson: I'm very excited. I'm part of an amazing team here at McMaster, and I couldn't be more thrilled. I do miss locuming because I had a lot more control over my life at that time, but this is certainly more fulfilling. So I'm very excited to be starting this chapter.
Radha Sharma: Like I said earlier, our goal of the podcast is to chat with you and other people about how they've been fitting their family plans while balancing a medical career and training, and all of that. What sort of inspired you to want a family? What was your timeline?
Sarah Patterson: That's a really good question. I feel like having plans is not always how things work out. So I always knew that I wanted to be a mother. That was something that I had known about myself from a very young age and I had sort of, when I was a child, it's like, yeah, when I'm 30 I'll be old, and that'll be time, like I'll totally have kids by the time I was 30, which clearly didn't happen, and you know it as I sort of have progressed through life, and you've gotten a few speed bumps and things like that through the way. It has been an interesting journey. We'll say that. I was lucky enough to meet my husband, my now husband, when I was in my PGY2 year and that has been an amazing, wonderful asset to my life. He keeps me alive. He makes sure I'm sane, and he is the biggest support that I have.
Sarah Patterson: One of the things that is less awesome about the fantasticness that is, my husband is that he didn't and doesn't want children. So that has been the main reason that I'm you know, here, I guess today to share my story of what it looks like if you're not in a position to go forward and have kids but that, you know, you can still have, you know, a wholesome, fulfilling and satisfying life, even if you always wanted kids and don't get them as you go through life and things change, and you get a different perspective that you can still be happy.
Radha Sharma: We want to thank you again for being on the podcast, for sharing that perspective, because I feel like the social expectations of having children and having a family are so prevalent. So hearing from someone's experience in that way, I hope will help other listeners that are in that position to resonate a little bit.
Radha Sharma: When you met your husband, was that something that you chatted about before getting married? Was it something that you both were kind of on the same lines about. What did those conversations look like?
Sarah Patterson: When we first met, we were both sort of on the fence. I went trying to decide what I wanted to do with my hematology career at that point and when I was at that stage in my PGY2 year, I was like, okay, I want to be a hematologist. I want to be a malignant hematologist like my mother was and I actually wanted to solve graph versus host disease in bone marrow transplants, because, you know, small goals. That was what I wanted to do. And as I met my husband, and, as we, you know, started to get closer and get more serious, we initially both thought that we were sort of on the fence, and as time went by, you have a biological clock, and it clicks in and I realized that I really was at a point where it wasn't just maybe I possibly want to possibly have kids at some point. It was like, No, no, like, I want kids. And today, we could have kids today. My husband was like, I mean, I guess. I mean, I guess. And we were lucky enough that to welcome my niece into the world, who was the first baby that my husband was around since his brother was born when he was 4 and my niece is amazing. But she had wicked colic and was born in the ranitidine shortage.
Radha Sharma: Oh, my goodness.
Sarah Patternson: So that was the the first of his like baby exposures, was a lovely child who cried a lot
Radha Sharma: Right.
Sarah Patterson: And as things got more real, and as we were talking more about like, Okay, you know, like I love you, we're now married, because that was a thing for him - we had to be married before we had kids right, so be it. And he was like, you know how I said I was on the fence and if you wanted kids, okay. I can't. We can't have kids. I can't do this. Which led to a lot of really difficult conversations, as you know, and I love my very Italian husband. But, like many people, he has some issues with his father, and how he was raised and so has had some trouble coping with the idea of can he be the father that he wants to be?
Sarah Patterson: He doesn't love babies, he doesn't know what to do with them and his exposure, while we have wonderful babies in the family were not always as positive, perhaps, with things like colic and whatever. And we sort of you know, we like went to fertility clinics, and we sort of worked at all this, and and he just wasn't able to cope. We couldn't cope with adoption because of the idea of a kid that was not related to him and then, like sort of moved on. And we just sort of have spent the last sort of year and a half or so just trying to sort of say, okay, so that's not how we planned things in the beginning but this is where we're at. How are we going to make sure that we're together and figuring it out?
Radha Sharma: Have you been each other's biggest support systems? Who's kind of been in your circle, I guess that knows about the things that you guys have been going through?
Sarah Patterson: I'm pretty vocal. I have the most amazing support system ever. I think. My mom is my like biggest rock, I guess, outside of my husband because again, some of these things with perspective, you can't always, like my husband and I are very close, we have a very frank and open relationship. We can talk about the good things, the bad things, the difficult things. But as I was processing through this, it wasn't something I could always talk to him about, because it's hard to say I'm hurting at the fact that I wanted children, and that's not going to happen for us, because he would hear that as his fault. It wasn't a thing, nobody was at fault of it. We were not able to get pregnant naturally, and the additional medicalization of stuff was not something that we could go through, the 2 of us together and stay strong. So some of that, as I was processing, couldn't go through him because it would just cause additional stress. My mom is my rock. Both of my bosses at work have been the most amazing, supporting, wonderful mothers and have been able to talk about the challenges of what's not perfect about motherhood, and how sometimes life gives you lemons, but you know what I really love lemonade. So, being able to talk frankly with people I love and trust has let me sort of work through this kind of like, they're my external therapists. And it has just been really helpful to talk about it, to think about it. I have shared my story with really anybody who asks because I'm not very private and I think it's, you know, if I could say one thing to people, it would just be like. Make sure that you can talk to your partner and make sure you have the difficult conversations ideally early. Once you're married, it's a bit more complicated. and when you're you know, I love my husband, and I will not leave him over this because I love him more than the idea or figment of children. But you know, having a supportive group, having people you can be strong with or weak with, definitely have come crying to people being like, I can't cope with it. And that, you know, having the people that you don't have to be strong with are such a huge support.
Radha Sharma: Yeah, like being vulnerable and just being yourself and being open. I feel like those are. It's a privilege to have people in your circle and be so open with them. But I'm glad that you have a strong fort around you, it sounds like
Sarah Patterson: Exactly. I have my people. My people are great people.
Radha Sharma: Exactly.
Radha Sharma: What feelings have been coming up when you think about wanting to be a parent and now not that not really being the case? Any advice you have for other people that are going through the same thing?
Sarah Patterson: It is such a roller coaster. When I was finishing my heme training and I had, you know, I had decided at that time that I was going to be a transplanter and I was gonna devote myself wholeheartedly, heart and soul, to my work. But my husband is not in medicine and doesn't always understand the hours and the commitment that this job can sometimes take. And when we were looking at that, because he was never as on board to having kids as I was, we realized that while being a transplanter would have been a really amazing career goal and very fulfilling in a way that if we had kids, it would be marriage breaking because he would have the, you know, sick child, can't go to daycare, someone has to stay home. I'm sorry, 60 people in my clinic today, I can't come see you, because who's gonna pick that up? Whereas my husband who works in IT could work from home.
Radha Sharma: Right.
Sarah Patterson: So that caused me a lot of angst and a lot of time to really consider what aspects of my job were important to me to have a fulfilling work career but also be flexible enough to allow me to be a parent in our particular setting, which was different because my husband did not want to do the lion's share of the child care and so that was a very stressful and
heart sort of wrenching sort of period of time, and why I ended up locuming for a couple of years. And that was really when we were trying hard. So that had a lot of flexibility to make appointments and to pick my own hours and to have just the flexibility there. When it became apparent that that was not likely to happen, that we were probably not going to be successful in having kids we, you know, after essentially 2 years of 2 week waits and planning, and, you know, peeing on a stick to see if you're close to ovulation, and all of that ups and downs, and you know, being heartbroken when you know they're like, Oh, I'm like, 2 days late, maybe I'm pregnant and that was not something that I shared. For all that, I share a lot of things. I didn't share that as much with people, partly because it's a bit weird to like, tell people that I’m like trying to get pregnant. Because then people get this mental image of you and your partner. And I feel like most people don't need to - but that like I found that process really hard of the is it going to happen? No, it didn't happen. Well, maybe next month, maybe yes, and then hormones going all over the place.
Sarah Patterson: So I had spent a lot of time over those 2 years thinking about what kind of a doctor do I want to be, and and how? What are the parts of medicine that make me fulfilled? And that led me back to Sickle Cell and the fantastic mentorship of my docs here, because I get to really focus on my patients as people and really help them on the journey that is life from a medical, but also from a holistic healthcare perspective. And that gives me so much fulfillment.
Radha Sharma: That's so beautiful. It's so nice to like. I feel like you can really tell when a physician cares about their patients and their work, and it seems very apparent that you do get fulfillment from your career. I think it's a common experience that there's burnout, and it is a long training process. So was that always the case for you, how did you navigate through that?
Sarah Patterson: Second year slump? Yes, there are always, there will always be good times and bad times. There were rotations that I did not like as much as others. Groups of people who I didn't fit in as well with and one of the things I really liked about residency is that the rotations were over pretty quickly. So if you did hate it, the end would come. So that was something that was refreshing. I mean residency and trading is. So it's so hard, it's so long, it's exhausting. You always have to be on. You're not supposed to have emotions. You're not supposed to be going through stuff outside of medicine. You're supposed to just be the perfect little robot, or so it feels - it's not true. and I think anyone who has a good support of people around them will, again, you gotta have your people you can be vulnerable with, because nobody can be on all the time, make sure you take your vacation, make sure you have your people, and you can bond over the sometimes it feels like shared trauma. But the friendship that we make and the experiences that we go through. It does get better. And t is a really beautiful thing on the other side.
Radha Sharma: We ask all of our guests this, if you had a magic wand and could somehow go back in time and change anything, would you? And why? Or if you wouldn't, why not?
Sarah Patterson: I don't know. I mean, I think like if I had, you know, would I go back and marry someone else? I don't think I could. You know, I think my husband is my perfect other half, in that neither of us are perfect. He's been there with me through most of residency, 2 royal colleges, 2 moves, and he hasn't left me yet. He still cooks me dinner. And while on one hand, you know, do I wish that we had spent more time talking and being really truthful about our goals for what we wanted our future to look like? Yes. Do I wish I had married someone who wanted kids? Yes, but I still want it to be Mike and I think that I may not be a parent. I have 2 godchildren, and I love any opportunity to hang out with them, which I think is great. I have my dog, who fills my maternal instincts, and most people who know me know how I dressed him up for my wedding. He’s a 70 pound goldendoodle, he's a big dog. And you know because we don't have kids, you know, we have a trailer, and we go fishing every time. It's nice enough to go outside. And you know, if we decide we want to like, go on spontaneous holiday to Hawaii, we just have to put the dog in a kennel and we’re good. Which is kind of amazing. And while it's not where I thought I would be, I am actually really happy to be where I am, and I don't think - well it's nice to daydream about what I would change if I could change things, I don't think I would be happier than I am right now.
Radha Sharma: I love that honest and raw response. Your definition of family can be so different. For some people that may look like having a child or adopting, or what have you. But for other people, it's having older parents that you know you're a caregiver for, or having a dog, or maybe just you and your partner. I feel like the word family we associate in our mind with, that nuclear family image. But it's such a different definition for everyone.
Sarah Patterson: You know, just because you thought life would be one way - you know, I also thought that I was going to be an astronaut like dreams can change and that's okay, too
Radha Sharma: Sarah, do you have any advice for medical trainees that might be watching this, it doesn't have to necessarily be about family planning, it can be about career, it could be really anything, any words of wisdom that you'd like to share?
Sarah Patterson: I think mostly just find your people and have your people, you know, and be truthful and open with your people. If you are in the family planning journey, I think it is. I mean, I'm a hope for the best, and prepare for the worst kind of person. I think it is practical to think of - how far am I going to go? How far am I willing to push? What am I willing to risk? And what do I do if this doesn't happen? But I am like the epitome of practical people. And so that's perhaps maybe just a me thing. But know that if it's something, you know, if this is your heart's desire, and you really want it to happen that there are so many options between, you know, godchildren and pets and adoption. And you know, IVF or whatever, there are definitely ways to fulfill that need and that it's okay that it's hard. But definitely, if it's something that's super important that having plan A, plan B, or plan C, I think as a super practical person is a helpful thing.
Radha Sharma: And Sarah, in this moment in time, are you thriving or surviving?
Sarah Patterson: I don't even know. Honestly, probably thriving. I'm super excited to go on my first vacation in like the last 8 months. So I think that's a thriving kind of a thing. I think it's just a matter of, you know, just there are different ways to be happy and just, you know, embrace life to the fullest, because it's the only one we've got.
Radha Sharma: We want to give you another thank you, Dr. Patterson. It was an absolute pleasure chatting with you and hearing your perspective, which is the life story of so many, and often goes unheard, it was great hearing your journey today. You can find Sarah's contact information in the notes from today's show. This is Radha and Sarah signing off.