Do doc­tors make bet­ter par­ents, or vica versa?

Not nec­es­sar­ily, but be­ing a par­ent can im­prove your med­i­cal skills, ac­cord­ing to some doc­tors

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sheila Way­man

The over­whelm­ing con­cern of most new par­ents af­ter they get home from the ma­ter­nity hos­pi­tal is will they be able to keep their tiny in­fant alive. From lurk­ing germs to ac­ci­dents wait­ing to hap­pen, the world sud­denly seems a scarier place.

It’s no won­der that be­ing a doc­tor is re­garded – by non-medics any­way – as a big ad­van­tage in par­ent­ing. Know­ing your cough from your croup would surely make you much more re­laxed and com­pe­tent.

Not re­ally, ap­par­ently. “The idea that a doc­tor would be a bet­ter par­ent is bizarre in many ways,” ac­cord­ing to doc­tor and TV pre­sen­ter Chris van Tulleken, of CBBC’s Op­er­a­tion Ouch fame. Af­ter re­count­ing his in­ep­ti­tude as fa­ther of a one-year-old girl in the Ob­server re­cently, he added: “But if be­ing a doc­tor doesn’t seem to have im­proved my par­ent­ing, be­ing a par­ent does seem to have im­proved my doc­tor­ing.”

So, do doc­tors make bet­ter par­ents, or par­ents make bet­ter doc­tors? Here four medics dis­sect the meet­ing of the pro­fes­sional and the per­sonal.

ProfAlf Ni­chol­son

Con­sul­tant pae­di­a­tri­cian at Tem­ple Street hos­pi­tal and fa­ther of four chil­dren aged 21, 24, 25 and 26

An in­ci­dent just be­fore the birth of his first child in a Dublin ma­ter­nity hos­pi­tal re­in­forced for Prof Alf Ni­chol­son the tran­si­tion be­tween doc­tor and par­ent.

It was 4am and all was go­ing well with his wife’s ad­vanced labour when he was asked if he could help with an emer­gency case else­where in the hos­pi­tal, while other staff were be­ing called in.

“I was step­ping from be­ing the fa­ther to be­ing the pro­fes­sional, giv­ing ad­vice and help as best I could,” he says. “Then Katie was born and she was very well but the other baby was very sick.”

His over­whelm­ing emo­tion at his daugh­ter’s ar­rival was relief, know­ing how eas­ily the sit­u­a­tions could have been re­versed. He thinks maybe other peo­ple don’t re­alise as much that “a baby be­ing born safe and well is a real mir­a­cle”.

Nearly six years later, their fourth child was quite sick at birth and had to go to spe­cial care. “That was very in­ter­est­ing,” he re­calls, as only a medic dad could, “but was also quite fright­en­ing be­cause we knew ex­actly what he had – se­vere in­fec­tion – and how se­ri­ous that could be.”

Ni­chol­son has no doubt that doc­tors are more in­clined to un­der-treat than over-treat their own chil­dren. If you’ve had a long day in a pae­di­atric hos­pi­tal see­ing re­ally bad cases, “a mi­nor ill­ness just seems like a mi­nor ill­ness”. But as sick chil­dren do need TLC, “you try to pro­vide it as best you can, maybe not as sym­pa­thet­i­cally as you should”.

While there are no rules about treat­ing your own fam­ily, it is al­ways very tricky, he says. “One thing you have to be very care­ful of, and I have fallen foul of it a few times, is that some­times you treat your own child a bit too long if things aren’t go­ing so well.

“I think the rule I have my­self is that if things are not go­ing in the right di­rec­tion, you are al­ways bet­ter to have some­body else on board who is ob­jec­tive.” It is not a good idea to write pre­scrip­tions for a fam­ily mem­ber, he says, apart, per­haps, for an an­tibi­otic for a chest or ear in­fec­tion.

In pae­di­atrics he be­lieves that “with­out ques­tion it is a mas­sive ad­van­tage to be a par­ent. I think you can re­late to how par­ents are so in­vested in ev­ery way in their chil­dren’s well-be­ing. To be able to em­pathise with their ma­ter­nal, pa­ter­nal, con­cern over their child is huge.”

When it comes to col­leagues with a sick child, doc­tors have to be very care­ful. They may be look­ing for re­as­sur­ance over the phone and pre­sent­ing it as ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be fine but he is “quadru­ply cau­tious. I tend to go the ex­tra mile, not to short-change peo­ple who you know may be down­play­ing symp­toms in their own chil­dren.”

Be­ing a doc­tor, he con­cludes, “doesn’t pro­tect your chil­dren in any way from se­vere ill­ness or se­vere prob­lems that’s for sure. The more I look at life – the more luck comes into it.”

DrMatt Wid­dow­son

Con­sul­tant en­docri­nol­o­gist at Tal­laght Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal and fa­ther of two chil­dren aged six and four

Shift work as a hos­pi­tal doc­tor helps pre­pare you for the sleep de­pri­va­tion of early par­ent­hood, says New Zealan­der Dr Matt Wid­dow­son, who has worked in Ire­land for more than 16 years.

“You are used to mul­ti­ple wak­en­ings and hav­ing to be rel­a­tively re­spon­si­ble in your ac­tions,” he says with a smile. He also be­lieves his train­ing has made him a lit­tle more re­laxed about par­ent­ing from a health per­spec­tive.

“I would be rel­a­tively laid back but I think be­ing a doc­tor has meant that I am a bit more com­fort­able with stan­dard child­hood ill­nesses and don’t go to the GP quite as quickly.” His wife is also a health pro­fes­sional, a phys­io­ther­a­pist, and, aside from rou­tine vac­ci­na­tions, their youngest child didn’t at­tend a GP un­til he was three. How­ever, he ac­knowl­edges they have been blessed that both chil­dren haven’t had much more than com­mon colds.

The down­side of be­ing a hos­pi­tal doc­tor is that shift work and be­ing on call takes you away from par­ent­ing.

“My el­dest was born when I was still a regis­trar, work­ing in the in­ten­sive care unit.” He was en­ti­tled to just three days off af­ter her birth, which luck­ily ran into a bank hol­i­day week­end. Over the next three or fourth months he was fre­quently do­ing 24-hour shifts in the hos­pi­tal, which put more pres­sure on his wife and led him to miss­ing out a bit on his daugh­ter’s early life.

He feels lucky to have been ap­pointed a con­sul­tant soon af­ter that which, although

I think the rule I have my­self is that if things are not go­ing in the right di­rec­tion, you are al­ways bet­ter to have some­body else on board who is ob­jec­tive – Prof Alf Ni­chol­son

it means a greater bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity, in­volves a lot less overnight or week­end work.

Par­ent­hood might not seem im­me­di­ately rel­e­vant to Wid­dow­son’s work as a con­sul­tant en­docri­nol­o­gist treat­ing mostly adult pa­tients with di­a­betes, as well as do­ing acute gen­eral medicine, but he be­lieves it has been an as­set.

He now knows how busy and com­pli­cated fam­ily life can be, mak­ing it hard for some pa­tients to im­ple­ment life­style changes or to stick to ex­er­cise regimes to im­prove their health.

“Liv­ing it your­self and see­ing the stresses and strains and the sleep de­pri­va­tion and what it takes just to get the chil­dren out to school in the morn­ing – as well as both get­ting to work your­selves – does give you an un­der­stand­ing of what the per­son in the bed in front of you is go­ing through.”

It means he is more likely to take heed of what is go­ing on in some­one’s back­ground and be more re­al­is­tic in his ad­vice. “If you just put it to them, ‘this is what you should do and off you go’, they are go­ing to be more stressed leav­ing than when they were com­ing in, so it is counter-pro­duc­tive.”

He tries to de­velop a rap­port with pa­tients who have chil­dren, by ask­ing them what age they are. “If they are about the same age as mine or a bit older, I will tell them I have a six-year-old and a four-year-old and you can al­most see it in their face that you un­der­stand where they’re com­ing from.”


North Dublin GP and fa­ther of three, aged 16, 18 and 20

“Noth­ing pre­pares you for look­ing af­ter your own chil­dren,” says GP Dr Ray Wal­ley. Although he had worked in pae­di­atrics in Eng­land, he was ner­vous with his first-born and feels he and his wife both learned to­gether.

How­ever, that’s not to say his med­i­cal knowl­edge didn’t help. “Lessons I learned as a medic in­cluded don’t be afraid of us­ing parac­eta­mol/ibupro­fen. You also un­der­stand the im­por­tance of hy­dra­tion, hy­dra­tion, hy­dra­tion, when they are sick and how quickly kids bounce back, know­ing that thank­fully few kids get se­ri­ously sick.”

He ac­knowl­edges their luck in hav­ing three healthy chil­dren, although two of them are asth­mat­ics “but thank­fully well con­trolled on in­halers”.

Wal­ley be­lieves it’s fairly com­mon that doc­tors try to avoid their own chil­dren tak­ing sick days off school. “It prob­a­bly doesn’t help when you have two par­ents work­ing out­side the home with dif­fi­culty ac­cess­ing cover for ill chil­dren.”

Yet his off-spring all re­mark now that they weren’t given an­tibi­otics as chil­dren – and two of them have never had an­tibi­otics de­spite be­ing in their late teens.

“Medics are very aware that acute/ chronic ail­ments in chil­dren mostly re­solve,” he says. But, as fam­ily are gen­er­ally fit­ted in at the start and end of the work­ing day, there can be a de­lay in at­tend­ing to one’s own chil­dren.

“There is an in­nate wish to not bother a col­league to re­view your child so some­times that re­view should have been ear­lier. It can be hard to draw the line be­tween emo­tion and ob­jec­tiv­ity so, when asked to re­view a col­league’s child, we all un­der­stand the con­flicts and do so promptly and hap­pily.”

He and his col­leagues some­times talk about how lit­tle sym­pa­thy they give their own chil­dren when they re­ceive knocks on sports fields – some­thing which his three would have com­mented on too.

“We tend to be slow to assess, wait­ing for them to get up and start mov­ing again – the art of watch­ful wait­ing,” he ex­plains.

He has no doubt that be­ing a par­ent has made him a bet­ter GP. “I have learned to never ig­nore a par­ent’s gut re­ac­tion as they know their child best.

“When I was in my first GP job, I saw a child as a house call who was florid with a fever. The mother said that he couldn’t have a fever as the ther­mome­ter read nor­mal – but the ther­mome­ter was bro­ken.

“The les­son I told the mother is never ig­nore your in­stinct, even if you think you will look fool­ish if all is nor­mal. She knew some­thing was wrong and sought a med­i­cal re­view.”

Oc­ca­sion­ally, as a doc­tor, he has re­ferred a child for a sec­ond opin­ion even when he knew that child was not acutely un­well but felt the par­ents needed fur­ther re­as­sur­ance.

“Par­ents and medics have one thing in com­mon when it comes to chil­dren – we are al­ways learn­ing.”

With two chil­dren yet to do the Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate, it is too early to say if any of them will fol­low him into medicine.

“I cer­tainly would not put them off it. It is a phe­nom­e­nally re­ward­ing ca­reer. Un­for­tu­nately, with my in­volve­ment in med­i­cal pol­i­tics they are more aware than most of the dif­fi­cul­ties within our health ser­vice; how­ever, they are equally aware of the many fan­tas­tic as­pects to the job too.”

Dr Maeve Hur­ley

A for­mer GP and founder of Ag Eis­teacht, a char­ity pro­vid­ing re­la­tional train­ing to front­line prac­ti­tion­ers in health, ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial, youth and com­mu­nity sec­tors, has five chil­dren aged 20 to 31 and one six-month-old grand­child

As a first-time mother, Dr Maeve Hur­ley felt she missed out on some of the sup­port that new par­ents get be­cause other pro­fes­sion­als of­ten pre­sumed she knew it all.

“Yes, I had all the train­ing and knowl­edge but the worry of not get­ting it right and mak­ing a mis­take were con­stantly with me too.

“I re­mem­ber clearly one mid­wife who spent time with me when our el­dest son, Dar­ragh, was born and I was so grate­ful as I felt she treated me like any other new mum, which is what I was – a new mum with sim­i­lar needs to other mums.”

Hur­ley be­lieves she had the same wor­ries and sleep­less nights as any par­ent over the many mi­nor in­fec­tions and viruses that most small chil­dren ex­pe­ri­ence. How­ever, when it came to more ob­vi­ous things, her ex­per­tise helped.

“As you can imag­ine in a fam­ily of five, we had lots of bro­ken bones. In fact, our friends tease us about all the breaks the kids in­curred.”

The chil­dren were sporty and suf­fered con­cus­sions, sprains and cuts be­tween them, along with ap­pen­dici­tis and other in­ci­dents over the years. She re­calls how in her par­ents’ house, af­ter one of her daugh­ters fell off a chair, she knew im­me­di­ately that she had bro­ken her col­lar bone.

“Sim­i­larly, when one of my other daugh­ters was eight, I knew from her symp­toms that she po­ten­tially had menin­gi­tis and rushed her straight to A&E. She was di­ag­nosed with viral menin­gi­tis and, thank­fully, went on to make a full re­cov­ery.”

Years later, Hur­ley says she com­pletely over-re­acted when she saw her daugh­ter had another rash and took her off a hockey pitch im­me­di­ately. “Thank­fully, it didn’t turn out to be any­thing se­ri­ous but, af­ter the menin­gi­tis, I was think­ing the worst.”

At other times, be­ing a doc­tor gave her clar­ity. “I re­mem­ber when one of the boys broke his arm badly dur­ing a match, I knew ex­actly what to do and was able to ring ahead and let the hos­pi­tal know that he would pos­si­bly need surgery.”

She al­ways tried to treat her chil­dren as a par­ent, not as a medic. “As par­ents, we know our chil­dren best and we in­stinc­tively know when they are not right.”

Know­ing that many mi­nor ill­nesses are self-lim­it­ing, she tended to take a “rea­son­able wait-and-see” ap­proach but, if in doubt, would al­ways go to her GP.

“I will never for­get stand­ing in the shower at 2am one morn­ing with my 11-month-old son hop­ing that the steam would al­le­vi­ate his croup and feel­ing so badly that we ended up calling our GP – when I re­alised that we had to get help quickly – and be­ing re­ally apolo­getic.”

She wasn’t dis­mis­sive if any of her chil­dren said they felt sick and doesn’t agree that she would have been slower than other par­ents to seek med­i­cal treat­ment.

“It goes back to act­ing as a par­ent first and a medic sec­ond. I have never pre­scribed or treated any of my chil­dren my­self, apart from pro­vid­ing ba­sic first aid or gen­eral sup­port.” The anx­i­ety and love you feel for your chil­dren when they are ill, she says, makes it hard to be ob­jec­tive.

As a GP, she has no doubt that mother­hood helped her to un­der­stand the per­spec­tive of a par­ent com­ing in with a sick child. “But a doc­tor’s abil­ity to re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately and ac­knowl­edge parental con­cerns shouldn’t be judged on whether they are par­ents or not.” Ev­ery life ex­pe­ri­ence gives a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, help­ing doc­tors, she hopes, “to be­come more com­pas­sion­ate and mind­ful of what else may be go­ing on in pa­tients’ lives and why they are re­act­ing in a par­tic­u­lar way.”

It has be­come in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous to her that the abil­ity to lis­ten and re­late is key not only to de­vel­op­ment as a doc­tor but to bet­ter health out­comes for pa­tients and, in­deed, to en­hanced par­ent­ing.

“It’s about show­ing care and be­ing present and at­tuned,” she adds, “as a doc­tor and as a par­ent.”

It goes back to act­ing as a par­ent first and a medic sec­ond. I have never pre­scribed or treated any of my chil­dren my­self, apart from pro­vid­ing ba­sic first aid or gen­eral sup­port – Dr Maeve Hur­ley


Above: Dr Matt Wid­dow­son, at home with his chil­dren Aoife and Eoin, in Dublin. Right: Dr Maeve Hur­ley, Dr Ray Wal­ley, and and Prof Alf Ni­chol­son.

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