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Love in the Time of a Surgical Residency Is Not Easy, And I Am Lucky To Have It

He has often hugged me post-call, wrinkled his nose and said, 'You smell a bit like Hospital.' It hasn't just been a few months - it has been years.

14/02/2017 04:58 SAST | Updated 15/02/2017 12:01 SAST
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Karen Milford

There's a professor in the department where I work who likes to sit me down from time to time and say, "You know, Karen, your problem is that you don't have a wife. In our day we worked a hundred hours a week and we could do it because our wives looked after our homes and our children and made us food and did the groceries. When we got home the children were washed and fed and all we had to do was kiss them goodnight. But you are a working woman and a mother - how will you do it?"

On the face of it, this is a sexist question, if you read into it that he believes that a woman is always responsible for domestic work and child care, regardless of the nature of her career (and that, conversely, a man is responsible for none of these things). But if you chat to him a little longer you realise that at the root of his questioning is perhaps some regret at those hundreds and thousands of hours he spent at work away from his family, and also a genuine belief that the way we work needs to be reevaluated, in order to bring some balance into our lives.

But this post is not about work-life balance. Rather, it is about the way I answer the question my professor poses to me. How will I "do it" without a wife? Well, with difficulty, but also with the person I have instead of a wife, who is my husband who loves me.

Navigating a relationship through the hellish waters of any residency is no mean feat, and adding a couple of small kids to the mix makes it significantly harder. Sometimes I wonder if we're just too busy and wrapped up in the thousands of small tasks we need to do to get through every week to even think about whether or not we love each other. Deep down, though, I know that my husband wouldn't be putting himself through all of this if he didn't love me.

Being in a relationship with a surgical registrar is absolutely no fun. There are so many cons. At the best of times, I'm frequently unavailable on weekends, get home from work late or not at all, and leave early in the morning (before we had kids, I would walk out the door on most days before he'd even woken up).

Work doesn't stay at work, and even when I haven't spent every evening studying for exams - leaving him to watch TV or read a book in the lounge on his own - there have been presentations to prepare, and articles and a thesis to write. I often smell bad when I get home, not only from the sweat of the day, but from the actual disease I have seen: rotten legs and gangrenous appendixes, of baby poo and vomit.

It takes a special kind of love to see someone through something that not only makes them pretty miserable in the moment, but makes your life kind of grim as well.

He has often hugged me post-call, when I'm tired out of my mind, emotionally labile and tearful, and wrinkled his nose and said, "You smell a bit like hospital." It hasn't just been a few months of this, here and there: it has been years and years.

To all these cons, there are very few pros. I'm not raking in tons of cash and whisking him off on lavish holidays whenever I do actually get a break. I'm not introducing him to loads of fascinating people. We've made a few good friends through my job but my work functions are beyond dull for him - endless hospital gossip and This-One-Time-On-Call stories. I don't think the idea of my job gives him any kind of a kick.

I often wonder about the surgical greats of days gone by, and their devoted spouses. Did Chris Barnard's first wife, a nurse who married him before the money and the fame, feel a thrill when she saw him in theatre, a beating heart in his hands? Do the wives of neurosurgeons stare at their husbands dreamily over dinner, imagining them prodding at the human brain? My husband definitely doesn't look at me as we're getting ready for bed and think, "She fixed a hernia today. So hot."

Modern love often has feminism as one of its core values, and there's no longer anything unusual about the idea that all tasks - from those necessary to keep a home running to those necessary to earn income - should be shared equally amongst partners. But it takes a special kind of love to see someone through something that not only makes them pretty miserable in the moment, but makes your life kind of grim as well.

It takes a lot for someone to say, "Ok, you're doing this thing that takes all these years and is not only not fun but is anti-fun, but I'll stick by you because you believe at the end of it you'll be happy and I'm happy if you're happy."

Love has always been hard work, and modern love has its particular challenges. Love in the time of a surgical residency is not easy, and I'm lucky to have it.

February is the month of love. At the Huffington Post South Africa, we take a look at how South Africans are finding and holding on to love. Author Shubnum Khan tells us about how cross-border romances are made or broken, tech journalist Nafisa Akabor looks at how social media replaced your meet-cute and lifestyle editor Sarah Koopman has some advice on how to get away from that tired old dinner-and-a-movie setup. Find them all and more here, or try these.