Many couples work in the same industry. From marketing to politics, a shared passion for something can further cement a couple’s bond. The same goes for physicians, but it’s trickier than your typical profession — particularly at a time when hospitals and healthcare systems have been strained, leaving healthcare workers overwhelmed and burned out.
The Bulletin spoke with Melissa M. Chen, MD, assistant professor of radiology at MD Anderson Cancer Center and member of the ACR CSC, and her husband Stephen R. Chen, MD, associate professor in the department of IR at MD Anderson, about thriving together with two demanding jobs and the shared responsibility of raising a family.
How did you meet each other?
MC: I was in business first and then I transitioned into medicine after working on Wall Street for a couple of years. I met my husband when I moved back home to San Antonio, Texas, to save money while I was doing my post-baccalaureate work for premed. I met him at church, and it just so happened at the time that he was a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force and a radiology resident at San Antonio Uniformed Services Health Education Consortium. I explored radiology as a specialty because Stephen was a radiologist. It may not have been something that I would’ve otherwise explored because you’re not commonly exposed to radiology as a medical student. It was Stephen who said to me, “I think you would enjoy radiology.”
With both of you practicing in the same profession, what have you learned from each other?
SC: We have different specializations within the same profession. I often ask Melissa to review head and neck imaging findings before my biopsies and after therapeutic procedures. She asks me to review possible aneurysms, vascular malformations, and post-procedural artifacts. Melissa is very efficient and task-oriented at work and some of these habits have rubbed off on me over the years.
MC: There are a lot of synergies as well as differences in our personalities. Stephen likes to try new technology. He’s not afraid to troubleshoot things, especially when it comes to radiology. He is someone who takes things apart and digs in deeper and gets very focused in a problem, whereas I try to think about how to get something done most efficiently.
Do you encounter differences in how people ask each of you about your family life?
MC: I think there’s definitely differences in people’s expectations. It’s easier for me if I say, “My kid is sick, and I have to stay home from work.” But if my husband said that, he would probably be looked at a little bit differently, so there’s a kind of reverse discrimination.
There’s also this expectation that I’m inherently taking care of a lot of the kids’ stuff versus Stephen. I encountered this when I was looking for positions and found that sometimes there’s the assumption that I may be trying to balance a family and so I'm not as interested in my career because I am female. I remember when I was in medical school someone asked me, “Oh, now that you’re marrying a doctor you don’t have to go to medical school anymore, right?” It was an assumption that one physician in the family was good enough. I think assumptions like this have pushed me to overcompensate to show that I’m committed to the work that I do, which sometimes can lead to me overworking a bit.
How do you two find a way to balance your work and family?
SC: We both try to stay actively involved in assisting the kids with schoolwork and their extracurricular activities. We take turns driving them to dance classes and piano lessons. We also like to exercise and go running together on the weekends. The routine helps keep some balance between work and family life.
MC: Stephen’s work hours are longer than mine, so it’s sometimes tough trying to coordinate schedules with the kids. We have a common calendar to keep track of commitments. We have a nanny because there’s no other way for me to get everyone to where they need to go. And then if there’s something I need Stephen’s help on, it has to be planned ahead of time. If I know that I’m going to be out of town attending a conference, or if I need his help to do something with the kids, he’ll block it off on his calendar. And we just trade off. There are certain tasks he knows that are his job and there are certain tasks that are my job.
What advice do you have for physicians who are trying to navigate work-life balance?
SC: Neuro IR is a busy specialty, and Melissa helps me maintain work-life balance by reminding me to take vacation time and to spend time with family as much as possible on the weekends.
MC: You also have to ask yourself what aspects of your family life are most important for you to be present for. For me, it’s important for me to be there for my kids’ recitals or help them with their homework. So I figure out how I can be present with the family in those moments, and then decide what I can outsource. Be creative and try to figure out who can help you and fill in those gaps, and then prioritizing what is important in terms of the time that you do have together. It’s taken a while to get here. And you have to evolve and constantly evaluate what you can get rid of or do differently.