Double Booked: Potential Spaces
By Eleanor Smith
Many years into a thriving congregational rabbinate, I was called to study medicine. Out of the blue, my father’s fantasy that had never been mine. For two years I kept this crazy thought to myself but in the end decided there was no failing scenario and I headed off in the direction of this strong signal I heard in my head every day. One encounter probably watered the seed. Called to the hospital for a simultaneous bedside consultation with the doctor, the rabbi (me then) and the patient’s family, we pooled what we knew of medicine, Jewish ethics and a father’s legacy to decide the best course of care for the elderly gentleman before us. As much as I loved being a rabbi, I was also acutely aware of the borders where my skills dropped away, in no arena more dramatically than in matters of sickness. With my bachelor’s in English literature and my three young children, I began an almost twelve year adventure to fill in this missing half, to expand the horizon of service that I now knew to be possible, to forge a hybrid of the physical realm with the psycho/social/spiritual one I knew so well.
When every power point in first year digestive physiology showed fecal matter, I decided it was time to bring the kids (4, 6 and 8)with me to school, with their little cars and Polly Pockets. I really wanted them to be a part of what I was doing. The syllabus said GI but that day’s topic was liver physiology. Spectacularly boring, with loud whispers of “where’s the poop?” Cafeteria food and sweatshirts from the bookstore afterward. When it was time for 30-hour shifts in the hospital during residency, my daughter Sophie came and hung out in the lounge with the 20-somethings, bravely slept in the call room while I went back and forth to the ER, the floors. In anatomy, there is a notion of potential spaces, spaces in the human body that only become evident when they fill with something new, usually something pathologic. But the room is there, more than we know, and the human body is a wonder of accommodation and resilience.
At the very beginning of my journey, a close family member told me that medical school with three young children was unethical. I pushed back on this gender-based distinction between the legitimacy of his long work hours and mine, but I carried that heavy word in my backpack for all those years, in each moment seeking the balance between my devotion to my three beloved children and my desire to extend my rabbinate into the world of medicine. I took an extra year in medical school, spent those summers at home with the kids, made smaller gestures when the endeavor could not be sized to fit a student like me. I got high honors in nothing but did good enough in the things that mattered most. They saw me fail and sweat (I did most of my crying in the car) and were there at my side when I took our diploma home.
My mom worked full time, my stepmom too. A girl doesn’t know who she’ll be or what she’ll need when she becomes an adult, and then a mother. Just like so many things we don’t know in childhood, it’s ok. Everyone has an internal compass, you just have to trust that it’s there and it won’t walk you over the cliff. In the world of working families, there is no right, just what’s true and doable and necessary for each family. It’s possible to have bruises and strains and still be deeply blessed for the vast opportunities of this modern world and for the mighty partnership that is family. I sure am.
Rabbi Eleanor Smith, MD is currently practicing internal medicine in Evanston, IL
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