Interview: Dr. Amy O'Linn, Mom and Physician

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Dr. Amy O’Linn, D.O., is Director of Hospitalist Physicians at the Cleveland Clinic’s Fairview Hospital in Ohio and immediate past-president of the Society of Hospital Medicine Lake Erie Chapter. She’s also mother of four children. A recent day in the life of Amy could range from taking care of her five-month-old son Ronan, to navigating a little old lady safely through a hospital stay, to volunteering to help treat a man experiencing a medical emergency on a recent airplane flight—which included her recommending the pilot divert the plane and land at the nearest airport to save his life just last month. So, what benefits and challenges does being a woman and mother bring to the field of medicine? Just in time for Mother’s Day, I reached out to Amy to get some answers.

DrAmyOlinn1

Art Credit: Will Hernandez

Can you give a brief description of your role as a physician and the areas of health you oversee and treat?

I am a hospitalist physician, which means I admit a patient to the hospital and manage their care until they're discharged, after which the patient follows up with a primary care doctor. I essentially specialize in the management of "acute medical problems gone wrong,” which includes things like uncontrolled infections, life-threatening alteration of blood flow to the heart or brain, potentially fatal blood clots, etc.

The benefit of having a hospitalist involved in a patient’s care is that we are the experts at navigating a patient safely and efficiently through a whole hospital stay. I am particularly passionate about walking alongside those more vulnerable, elderly patients and helping them navigate their hospital stay while maintaining their independence as much as possible so they can return to the level of functionality they had prior to hospital admission.

At what point in your professional life did you become a mother, and how did you establish a rhythm that felt right in terms of balancing your role as a mother and your responsibilities as a physician?

I completed my internal medicine residency while heavily pregnant in July 2008, did some moonlighting working nights at Cleveland Clinic, and then had my baby three weeks early in August 2008. At that point, while I’d had some job leads, nothing had finalized. Eight days after I delivered my baby, I sat for the Internal Medicine Boards. While these were supposed to be before I gave birth, babies come at their own schedule!

Taking the exam eight days postpartum was the perfect foreshadowing of my life as a working mother physician. You have the Boards to take? You just had a baby? Who cares! You’ve got to take the Boards and pass them. You have patients to see and you're six weeks postpartum? Who cares! “Patients First” means relinquishing your worries about your baby and focusing only on the patient in front of you. You have four kids ages five and under and you're tired? Who cares! You still have to stay up at night reading the literature journals and keeping up on the most recent changes in medicine.

Carry on. That's simply the way it is for women in medicine. If you're tired, exhausted, worried, overworked, or overwhelmed, those facts must fade in the face of the patient who needs you. The patient is there to get your full, undivided attention and focused effort.

Has being a mother impacted the way you see and approach your work, and if so, how?

Definitely. The easiest way to describe it is this: Being a physician, one becomes paternalistic, as in “I know best.” Being a mother, you soften that with some maternity, with all the authority and nurturing that's involved. As in “I know best, and I say that as a mother.”

I understand you now work one week on, one week off. What are the benefits of this rhythm, and what do you find the most challenging?

The benefit and challenges go hand in hand. Working seven days in a row in the hospital, I get emotionally and physically tired, and I just want to go home and hang out with my kids. But seven days in a row at home, and I'm looking to get back to the hospital for a respite! The kids do get used to the schedule, and I label my on- and off-weeks clearly on the calendar so there’s no mystery for the kids as to whether Mom will be home or not.

Both are hard jobs, but I think the stay-at-home mother job is harder.

Do you ever get surprised reactions from colleagues or others in your field upon learning that you have four young kids?

Absolutely. Luckily, though, I have four young kids and they are growing up to be self-sufficient and even more independent than some of the kids I see from families with stay-at-home mothers. Even though they are young, they have to hold up their end of responsibilities in the house such as picking up after themselves, clearing the dishes, and sweeping the floor. If they don't, then I have to, and I don't have time for that. They know this and are learning to be responsible for themselves, as part of the team.

In your view and experience, what are the running biases in your field toward women who are also mothers? Do you ever encounter raised eyebrows from mothers who have four or more kids when they learn that you are also a physician?

The main bias is this: You can't "have" or do it all.

I get this question all the time: "How can you keep up on the medicine?" (“with four small kids,” is the unspoken addendum). Well, working outside the home has always been a given for me—there was no choice. And my sense of vocation to help sick people was too strong to abandon once motherhood further enlarged my life. As a working mother and physician, it is simply my job to keep up with the medicine and provide the best, up-to-date medical care available. It’s a matter of commitment, of being willing to push oneself. Yes, you need to take care of yourself so you’re not tired and exhausted for the different spheres that need you, but in general, I do think more women need to accept the likelihood that they’ll have to work harder than men over the span of their familial and professional commitments.