Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Unsuspecting Catalyst

     My life as an anesthesiologist began in 2005, in a series of fits and starts. My husband and I had just separated, and we were sharing custody of our 14 year old twin boys. I found a cool house near the boys' high school, got a physician loan from Suntrust Bank, and made the first of many home furnishing trips to Atlanta's brand new IKEA. My mom, the boys, and some of my closest friends organized a wonderful surprise house-warming party for me, and they did a superb job of keeping it a secret. On the afternoon of the party, my friends Todd and Chris, both of whom were "in" on the secret, helped me stuff a 96 inch IKEA couch into the back of my Toyota Highlander, completely obscuring the rear view, and we drove the couch home with the two of them crammed onto each other's laps, and me, white-knuckling it down I-85. We arrived safely at my house, where I was greeted with a glass of wine by my favorite familiar faces. I'd never had a surprise party before, and was deeply touched by the fact that many of my friends drove from out of town to be there. The boys and one of their friends gave an impromptu concert downstairs. Some of my new neighbors stopped by to welcome us. We ate and drank and visited late into the night, and I later went to bed, feeling cherished, offsetting the bittersweet awareness that I was starting life anew, but I was doing it alone.
     I accepted a faculty position at Emory University, which was where I completed my residency. Staying on as faculty at the same place I had trained created an odd dynamic between me and my old professors: we were now on a first-name basis, but I felt that many of them still perceived me as a resident, instead of a peer. I knew I had to prove myself. The transition from resident to attending physician involved a bit of a learning curve, as well as an exciting-scary paradigm shift in the decision-making department, and now the surgeons and I shared ultimate authority and responsibility for our patients in the operating room.
     I was assigned to the visiting faculty office with three other new junior faculty members, two women and a man. Tonya and I had gone through residency together. Heather was formerly on faculty at UVA and she was married to a cardiologist. We all had kids, and much of our down-time in the office was spent coordinating child care, car pools, and all of the usual stuff that comes along with being a working mom. Allen was a bit of a mystery to me. The first time I saw him was during our hospital orientation. I was having a particularly bad day, in which each of my 10 minute breaks was spent on the phone with my  attorney, dealing with my divorce. She was an older woman who loved to chat, and each of those 10 minute chats was costing me a small fortune. I was in no mood to socialize. I noticed Allen's name on the list of new anesthesiology faculty, but I just couldn't muster up the moxie to introduce myself, and besides, I thought he looked kind of stuck up. Initially, Allen and I avoided each other. We politely competed for the use of the only two functional computers in our office. I learned that he had just completed a critical care fellowship at UAB, where he had spent five years in surgery residency before making the switch to anesthesia. He was focused and serious, and he actually read anesthesia journals just for fun. He was always impeccably dressed, his starched white coat luminous and wrinkle-free, but he had a cowlick on top of his head, which conjured up images of Dennis the Menace. He had grown up around Hilton Head and Charleston, SC, and was an avid runner. He consumed a ridiculous amount of Chik-Fil-A sweet tea before coming to work every day, and he had a strong aversion to coconut. I was a little worried that he might have a secret crush on me; he just wasn't my type. I later learned that Allen felt insulted that I didn't speak to him on that day during orientation, and was avoiding me because he thought I didn't like him.
     One day, we were all in the office together, and I had just gotten off the phone with my ex. I don't remember what our conversation was about, but it was emotional, and everyone in the room had been unwillingly subjected to hearing my end of it. After ending the call, I sat in silence. I was livid, as well as horribly embarrassed, and I think I may have even been crying. As I swung my chair away from my desk, I was confronted by the three of them facing me, blinking expectantly and looking somewhat stunned, mutually experiencing a complete loss for the right words to say. That awkward moment triggered one of the most glorious bitch sessions in the history of that dour visiting faculty office. Instantly united by our need to vent, we covered a monumental amount of ground. During those twenty minutes of supremely satisfying sacrilege, in which only a few of our colleagues escaped criticism, and no topic was deemed too sacred to scrutinize, I saw a different side of Allen. His evidence-based sense of humor was downright evil, his witty remarks attacking each of our gripes with surgical precision. He was fun and insightful and he read people very well. He declared himself as one of us that afternoon. Although I still wondered if he was crushing on me, we quickly became inseparable, the very best of friends. 
     I credit Allen with getting me out of my 11 month post-separation pity party, and back into the dating scene. I was 43 years old, and dreaded the thought of having to date again. Even though I was physically fit and reasonably attractive, I felt frumpy and undesirable, and I certainly wasn't attracted to, nor would I ever consider dating anyone from work. He suggested creating a profile on I was a little hesitant about this at first because the idea of online dating seemed so desperate. But, I was lonely, and given the fact that most of my friends were either gay or living out of state, I didn't have a lot of resources for meeting men. I put together a profile with a couple of recent photos, using the handle "Sleepytimedoc." I described myself as a 43 year old mother of 14 year old musician twin boys, made mention of being an anesthesiologist, and listed my interests, which included cooking, traveling, art, and music. It was kind of boring, but it was accurate, or so I thought. I gave it to Allen to review, and immediately, he had a huge problem with the fact that I'd listed my body type as "average". He exclaimed, "Sweetheart, average means you are 5-10 pounds overweight! We are changing this to fit and trim, and today, we're going shopping for some clothes that actually fit you!" He was right. At the time, I was wearing clothes that were one or two sizes two big, the kind of clothes you wear when you are a depressed, single lady who feels like a total loser. To me, clothes seemed rather superfluous, but Allen recognized that my baggy pants were a symptom of how I was feeling inside, and he cared enough to be honest with me about it. He was confident in me, and he wanted me to feel the same way about myself. We went shopping, and found some stylish pieces were versatile and timeless, in addition to fitting well, and suddenly, I was a new woman. Allen's steadfast belief in my potential pushed me, catalyzing the realization that not having a man in my life didn't mean I was alone, it simply meant I had to develop a stronger esteem for my own inner beauty, wisdom and capability. In other words, I needed to have a crush on myself. I won't bore you with the details of my dating life, except to say that the last man I dated on eventually became my husband, and that Brad and I were married on October 24, 2009, in a beautiful ceremony performed by our dear friend, my brother, Reverend Dr. Allen Nathaniel Gustin, Jr.

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