Authors: Steven N. Kalkanis
When my wife Laurel and I were asked to contribute an article about how we maintain work-life balance for this issue of Congress Quarterly, we had a good laugh. There is no such thing as a balanced life in neurosurgery. We seem to be always on, at full throttle, all the time. But when we really thought about the moments and traditions that we remember and cherish most as a family, a few common themes emerged.
First, communication is key-constant communication is necessary to maintain schedules and calendars, and to keep the family abreast of last minute changes, which are inevitable in our profession. I feel incredibly privileged to lead a department and our cancer institute while still also taking calls, managing a practice and a lab, and contributing to organized neurosurgery through the Section on Tumors, as well as the CNS. As a chair, I have both incredible support and some flexibility to control my schedule, but at the same time, I am essentially on call 24 hours every day for any issue that might arise for any of our faculty at our five sites.
I am immensely fortunate to have a true life partner in Laurel, who many years ago made the decision, with two masters degrees, to put her teaching career on hold to help raise our children. She now volunteers extensively at our kids' schools and the hospital, and runs many fundraisers and other events for our brain tumor center. She is constantly "on call" for multiple activities with our three children, Nicholas (13), Connor (11), and Grace (7). So, communicating a change in plans and being able to roll with a sort-of-certain-uncertainty still allows for many win-win scenarios, like driving separately and making the last hour of my son's baseball game, or arriving just in time for my other son's Boy Scouts' cross-over ceremony, but leaving early to go back to work, or drive my daughter to her championship soccer game.
Second, while all neurosurgeons likely hope beyond hope that the "quality trumps quantity" adage is actually true when it comes to building relationships with our children and families, quantity is important too. However, the sheer mathematics of the hours in each day complicated by the demands of neurosurgery negates the possibility of regular "quantity" time at home.
Over the last several years we have made a successful effort to block out at least four weeks per year for true family vacation time. I take the week off between Christmas and New Year's to be at home with the kids, relax, and recharge for the year ahead. In the winter, we pick a warm location to escape the cold Michigan air. In the summer, we take a two-week adventure as a family. I am not a fan, however, of the "no email" and "no phone" rules on vacation because it actually creates more stress for me knowing that a mountain of messages is building. I find half an hour in the early morning or late evening to review email, which in turn helps me enjoy the rest of the vacation without obsessing over what is happening at work.
Third-and by far the most important-is that we consistently make time together to have dinner as a family as many nights a week as we possibly can. Although meetings and other work-related events can make having dinner together difficult on many nights, elevating this time is a priority for our family. I try to leave the hospital by 6:00 pm to arrive home by 6:30 pm. During this time I can help drop off or pick up our kids at, or even attend, any one of the extracurricular activities happening on a given day. And, I get to hear about all the little crazy stories and triumphs and tribulations of the day from the perspective of my children. Over time, the ability to be present during this critical window of the day creates connectivity and important reference points that help me understand more deeply the goals, fears, joys, stresses, and idiosyncrasies of our children. These events typically wind down by 9:00 pm, at which time I either go back to work or retreat to my home-office/man cave to catch up on email, write papers, review grants, and return calls.
It's a blessing to practice the art of neurosurgery and to engender the trust of patients whose quality of life-and often life itself-rests in our hands. It's not a job or "work," but actually a calling, a way of life, an inextricable part of who we are. We shower our children with unconditional love every single day (although the pre-teen and teenage years make that a unique and separate challenge). In the end, even if I am not as visible during the daily routines, I hope that our children observe and appreciate this example of service to others, and are inspired to seize the opportunities they have been given to pursue their dreams and make a difference in this world.