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Memoir Non-Fiction

What Women Want

When I started medical school in 1976, my class was 15% women. St. Louis University was quite proud of being so broad-minded. Yet, two years later, when the chief of surgery at St. Louis City Hospital found out that he had two medical students with the same first name in the operating room, he called them “Honeybunch One” and “Honeybunch Two.” I was “Honeybunch Two.” 

I remember some of the challenges of being an Asian woman physician among predominantly white, predominantly male doctors and hospital administrators. I recall being torn between the unrealistic dedication expected of doctors and my daycare, meal prep and bedtime obligations to my son. I struggled to find time for exercise, friendship and sleep. 

These memories came rushing back to me while reading Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir Becoming. I laughed at Michelle’s description of “lunchtime blitz.” At lunch hour from her University of Chicago Hospital administrator’s job, she’d make a shopping run, usually something her kids needed, eat a Chipotle, and relax to music in her car. She was pretty proud of herself. Michelle tells these stories with humanity, humility, humor and above all, self-awareness. 

One of the consistent themes of Michelle Obama’s life is, as she writes in the dedication of her book, her “circle of strong women.” As First Lady, she was able to hold gatherings of the women she held dear at “Boot Camp weekends” at Camp David. They came from all phases of her life.

Some, like Valerie Jarrett, were mentors to Michelle at her job at Chicago City Hall. Some were women she bonded with when they all were stressed-out young mothers. Still others were from her team on the campaign trail or at the White House. 

Michelle Obama and her team on the campaign trail

This is how Michelle Obama conceived of these get-togethers:

 “My friends tend to be accomplished, overcommitted people, many of them with busy family lives and heavy-duty jobs. I understood it wasn’t always easy for them to get away. But this was part of the point. We were all so used to sacrificing for our kids, our spouses, and our work. I had learned through my years of trying to find balance in my life that it was okay to flip those priorities and care only for ourselves once in a while … Boot Camp weekends became a way for us to take shelter, connect, and recharge.” 

In 2000, on the strength of a flyer in the mail, I attended my first Balance Conference for Women Physicians in the Colorado mountains. Women physicians. Accomplished? Yes! Overcommitted, Oh yes! Hard for us to get to away? Hell, yes!  And yet, we came – from Long Beach and Lubbock to Chicago and New York City. And the Denver area, of course. We are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and non-affiliated. We even have a smoker or two. Our specialties include internal medicine, ophthalmology, urology, pediatrics, family medicine, palliative medicine, geriatrics, psychiatry, OB-GYN. Probably some others.

We are a diverse group, yet we have a shared history. We all lived through residency. We know the tyranny of the call schedule. We’ve all sacrificed family time for a patient’s medical emergency. We’ve all had something “mansplained” to us. 

These are legitimate medical meetings with approved CMEs (Continuing Medical Education credits). Yet, it is a whole different vibe to be with just women. I’m not knocking men. It’s just that, as with systemic racism, there’s systemic sexism. “Male” is the default mode built into our society. 

The Balance Conference has ground rules that allows for vulnerability. We encourage active listening and not interrupting. We keep confidentiality. (Speak from the heart. Listen from the heart.) At my first meeting – and many attendees have echoed this sentiment since – I felt heard. I felt known. For the first time in a very long time. 

Beautiful Breckinridge

Balance Conference also walks the walk on self-care. How many times have we told patients about getting sleep and eating right and yet couldn’t manage to do that for ourselves? At the meeting, there is massage, yoga and group meals. And a mountain resort town like Breckinridge is full of retail therapy!

We tackle sensitive topics.  One session I remember clearly was called “Medical Mistakes.” There was a lecture, which I don’t remember much of any more. Then, we broke up into small groups. I talked about a young cancer patient who died from heart failure when his heart abnormality couldn’t compensate for the stress of the chemo. He was such a sweet guy. His parents from rural Missouri trusted me. 

Even though this happened in the mid – ‘80s, I had had no chance to grieve, to share the trauma. At the time, I kept to polite concern with the parents, the ICU nurses who took care of him, even the heart specialist. I had to comfort them. I hid away, even from myself, my sense of failure, my fear of malpractice accusations, my sadness. The women physicians at Balance understood. Each had their story about a case that went badly and how they dealt and felt about it. 

There’s an element of competition and braggadocio in the usual medical setting. It is such a balm to be open and emotional. And the bottom line is that a happy doctor, a less-stressed doctor, a saner doctor is a better doctor. 

Other times, we display the “gallows” humor that got us through medical training, recalling being on night call and envying patients because they were lying down. And who hasn’t eyed the uneaten Jello on a patient’s tray? 

Still other times, we are joyful. And we express it with the most undoctorly abandon. We dance. We drum. We sing. We put on clown noses. 

At Balance Conference for Women Physicians, we learn that we are worthy. We, whose jobs are seen as the pinnacle of achievement and earnings, are worthy of support and compassion. It’s okay for us to complain about spouse trouble, to struggle with money problems, to have body image issues, to get down in the dumps. We, whose jobs are defined as caregivers, are worthy of being cared for. We learn to accept love. 

As Michelle Obama puts it, “it was okay to care only for ourselves once in a while…and say…I’m doing this for me.” 

Tell me: How are you getting support and friendship in this time of Covid? 

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

7 replies on “What Women Want”

Thanks Cathy. I always learn from you. My girl friends, many since gradeschool years., are my treasure.

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Very informative. Thank you. Coming of age in the ’50s, I suppose I’ve done my share of luck-headed male stuff. But I’ve tried to be supportive of the girls and women in my life.

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Balance Conference is an interesting and a supportive one. I wish that in my field of education, there were an organization or a yearly gathering like this one. I have a few girlfriends who work in various industries. I talk to them several times in a year, learning from them about their perspectives, life and work experiences as well as supporting one another. Recently, I started watching “Mad Men”. I have been intrigued by the storyline about the women who worked in the man-dominated advertising agency and about the spouses and girlfriends of these men. Women are now respected and recognized more by the society, but we still have a long way to go. Cathy, thank you for reminding us about this.

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Balance was as you describe from the get-go in 1991! This group of women has given me support through bad partner/horrible marriage/difficult kids/problem patients/divorce/ revitalization of 1st love/new, wonderful marriage/needing to be heard/listening. My Balance sisters are ALL very special to me & I thank everyone of you for being there when I’ve needed you. It has been difficult to learn when there was a loss of one of our sisters (Sue Reynolds, Martha Illege, Nasim Aziz, Mary Loos) but then there was the joy of welcoming new sisters into the group! The safety of being able to remain transparent in this group is, I believe, its highest quality. Although we’ve diminished in numbers from the original group, the value still remains & I hope Balance for Women Physicians NEVER quits. love to all, carol

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My strength comes from my kids and grandkids these days as well as sewing, reading and writing. My small group women physicians get together every 2-3 weeks by Zoom.
Cathy, as always, you have great insight and wonderful story telling. I am so grateful to have met you and share our love of medicine, family, writing, laughter, and now retirement!
I loved Michelle Obama’s book and felt that kinship, too.

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(Copied and pasted from email from Sue Beem, MD)
Great job Cathy. I remember my first Balance Conference in Vail, listening to a storyteller’s vision of a healer, singing with 200 strangers, a folk song full of love, the ceremony of smiling and meeting the eyes of others in circles moving in opposite directions, the sound of a river, the towering peaks, being listened to by all these healers and the trees. The whole idea of circles was new. This conference and the next one helped me discover why I was unhappy in my practice, and fortunately I was able to move to another office that had a history of forging connections and playing together! Sue Beem

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