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Editorial
Being A Mom Has Made Me A Better Doctor — Here's Why
Christen Marie Russo, MD. Photo by Guido Venitucci
Nicole Wolfrath
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Christen Marie Russo, MD, an Assistant Attending Physician in Pediatric Orthopedic Surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center is one busy woman. But between juggling full-time work and a 9-month-old daughter, she manages to maintain good work-life balance, setting aside some time for herself and enjoying evenings with her husband. 

She shares what goes on behind the scenes (which she calls a “circus”), dishes on how she manages pumping at work, and explains why she thinks being a mother has made her a better doctor.

What do you do in your role and how long have you been in this position? 

I have been an orthopedic surgeon for 8 years, the last three of which I spent focusing on pediatric orthopedics, an area in which I received additional specialty training. I take care of children of all ages from birth to 18 years old, and even some prenatal consultation - for all types of problems and injuries. 

In a typical day I can see different kinds of fractures (broken bones), hip abnormalities in newborn babies, scoliosis in teenagers, limb deformities, and foot and ankle problems. I treat patients both operatively and non-operatively depending on the problem at hand. 

Walk me through a typical day or week as you juggle motherhood and working full time.

Because I am a surgeon, my day often starts very early, so I had to sleep train my daughter that way. I nurse my daughter at 6 a.m. and still have time to pump by 6:30 a.m. While that is all happening,  I am also putting on my makeup and trying to stop my daughter from pulling the breast pump apart or putting makeup brushes in her mouth -- it's definitely a circus! 

My husband Michael, also a physician, is a big help because my daughter likes to "help him get dressed," or yell from her crib while his automatic tie rack whizzes around. This at least gives me a few moments to ready myself in peace! 

My nanny arrives by 7 a.m. and helps to entertain my daughter while my husband and I organize her milk and ready ourselves, quickly eat breakfast and pack lunches. 

Typically, my work day starts at 8 a.m. if I have meetings or am seeing patients in the office. Now, I am only pumping once a day at work, so I schedule an hour break into the middle of my day and usually only get about 30 minutes of that break to get it done. 

I think as a woman in orthopedic surgery, you have to be fairly adamant and obnoxious about breastfeeding being a priority to you, and you have to be confident and assertive about the whole process or you will give up early on. For me, one of the hardest parts is remembering which office or which hospital I will be at that day, so I know which pump parts to bring with me!

Does your company support you as a working mother?

I recently changed the company I work for, and a lot of that had to do with becoming a mother. At my prior institution, I was not completely supported as a working parent. My maternity leave was unpaid and I sometimes worked one to two days a week fielding emails and phone calls, regardless of being on leave. The department was not very female friendly and in orthopedic surgery, that is a very touchy subject. 

The hospital was also further from my home and made my new life as a mother and surgeon difficult. I was offered an excellent opportunity to advance myself academically and, at the same time, work closer to home - so I changed institutions. I can now walk to work - and my husband sometimes walks with my daughter to meet me when I work later in the office! 

While I am the only female faculty member with a child at this time, the department in general is very supportive of women in the orthopedic field, and really makes family a priority for everyone. 

How has your career changed since having a family?

I think being a mom has made me a better doctor. It is always hard to imagine yourself in the role of the patient, and especially the role of the parent, and so I try to listen more and talk less, and can be more empathetic just naturally now.

 I have adjusted my schedule so I start my day early and end early because of bedtime routines while my daughter is young, and if I have to go in and do a case while on-call, I try to do that after her evening routine. Since I am still breastfeeding, I can't commit to long operative cases where I can't take a break, but I have accommodated as not to disrupt care in any way. I don't go to as many conferences and dinners as I might have gone to before I had a family, but I don't see that as a bad thing.

My career will definitely keep evolving as my daughter gets older and I have more children - and I hope that it can continue to be in flux and grow with us. Having a career and a family is all about sacrifice and being able to evolve with the changes.

Do you make time for yourself?  If so, what do you do?

Tea Marie goes to bed by 6:30 p.m. every night, and so after that, Michael and I can catch up on our days, cook dinner together, and watch TV. We work in similar fields and it is nice to sometimes vent or talk things out together. We work five days a week and don't get to spend too much time with our daughter, so we don't do as many date nights, but if we have some time during the day we do date lunches - it's actually really great.

I have the luxury of having a nanny that works 5 days a week, and my schedule is not always the same, so sometimes I have a free morning here or a free afternoon there. I can use that time to go for a run or lift at the gym, or get my nails done, or go to a coffee shop to get some work done. 

If you had a Fairy Godmother (or Boss) what wish would you want granted?

I would wish for my daughter (or future other children) to be able to work and be happy because I taught them that's the only way to live. People say, “I want to work hard so that my children don't have to.” I don't think that way; I want to work hard so that my children see that they can also work hard, and have a family and be happy.

And also I might wish that my daughter would stop waking up at 4:30 a.m. and wanting a party in her crib!

--

Nicole Wolfrath is mom to two feisty girls in elementary and nursery school and has worked full time as a college career counselor for the past 15 years. She holds leadership roles on her children’s school boards and PTA, loves to create art when she can find the time and is passionate about women’s and parenting issues, which she advocates for through teaching and blogging. 

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