Sarah Merrill downplays a characterization as an overachiever. She and her husband, who each have several advanced degrees, have moved nine times in the past 2 decades, raised nine children, and Merrill began the path this week toward a specialty in neurosurgery with the longest residency requirement.
Medscape Medical News caught up with Merrill, 41, during a break from unpacking boxes after the family’s latest move to Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated last month from the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in Phoenix, Arizona, and began her residency June 27 at Indiana University, Bloomington. Merrill shared her whirlwind family journey since she and her husband met as undergrads at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 22 years ago and started building their large family — five sons and four daughters who now range in age from 8 to 20.
Medscape: Why did you decide to pursue a family instead of continuing onto medical school after graduating with a pre-med degree?
Merrill: I finished a year early and then wait[ed] to graduate with the rest of my class in 2001. My daughter was born in January 2002. I was a little conflicted. I thought I would [go to med school]; this was important to me. Ultimately, a family was more important. I did want to go to med school, but I was able to spend more time with my daughter and [later] be home for the kids when they were young. At first, I did not think I would go back to med school like I really wanted. I waited to apply until we knew we were done [having children] and my youngest was a few years old.
Medscape: Why neurosurgery, which requires such a long residency, considering your family responsibilities.
Merrill: I knew I wanted to be a physician. I didn’t have an idea of a particular specialty. In college I discovered I loved the brain and the neurosystem. … In a way, being in a field like neurosurgery, you have a longer period with teachers and advisors helping you. I was more concerned about finding the right fit and doing something that I love while being away from my family.
Medscape: What special skills do you bring to the profession as a mom of nine?
Merrill: Who better than a mom to take care of someone who needs your attention regardless of how tired you are? A mom pushes through [the exhaustion], taking care of people when they need you. … Being a mom is very humbling. It teaches you to listen and be aware of the needs of people you take care of. Having many small babies and toddlers [at one time] teaches you humility … that you can make a difference in the long run.
Medscape: What is the secret to managing a medical career with such a large family?
Merrill: Sometimes it’s messy. You have to be OK not to keep every detail of the house under control at all times. It takes a lot of flexibility. Everyone has chores. It’s a team effort. … The biggest things are to stay involved with their lives, to make sure they are on track and stay connected as a family. …
All the practical aspects are easier to manage than people think it would be to handle in a large family. Things that go on at home and when I’m at the hospital — the laundry, the food, clothes — can be managed. The more difficult are priorities in terms of when there are time conflicts, important things with kids’ events and I am at the hospital. They are pretty self-sufficient. My husband and I work pretty hard when I’m home to make sure to stay connected with the kids and each other as well. We had one date night a week. We’ll see how that holds up during residency.
Medscape: How will residency with a large family compare to medical school?
Merrill: Residency will be more hours at the hospital, and you do need to study for board exams and study for surgeries. It will be different from medical school. I will not be worried about scores on exams. The focus is on the patient and you study to help them; there is not a lot of homework or finals. The big stress in medical school was to do as well as you can to get into a specialty.
Medscape: What’s your advice to other moms in medical training?
Merrill: Try to stay focused on the next step as you work toward your goal, what you can do and control, and worry about right now, then get to the next step. … As moms, we worry about everything all at once. You can only do one thing at once … think of the next step and save the rest for another time.
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