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  • Writer's pictureShirin Dason

My Story

By : Abby Kapsack


My name is Abby Kapsack and I am a third year medical student at the University of Toronto Temerty Faculty of Medicine. I am also a mother to three beautiful children, one girl and two boys. My oldest is three and a half and my youngest is 3 months old. I had all three of my babies in medical school. Here’s how I did it.

 

Like so many other physicians and medical trainees, I’ve had a lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. The only problem was, I also had a strong desire to be a young mother. From as young as highschool, this dichotomy ate away at me and I spent a significant amount of time thinking about if and how I could “do it all.” I was warned by many that this would likely be impossible, but at best, extremely challenging. This messaging came from both people in and out of medicine.

 

But I am not one to let challenges stop me. In a weird way, everyone telling me that I couldn’t do it pushed me harder to prove them wrong. When I got engaged at 21 years old during my third year of undergrad, so many people asked “if I was still planning to apply to medical school,” as if marriage was a contraindication to becoming a physician. My husband not only supported my dreams, but he shared them so strongly that they became his dreams as well. We agreed that although my medical training would always be a strong priority, we would never let it get in the way of us achieving other important goals in our lives. We knew that medicine would always be here but our time to build our family wouldn’t be. We never wanted to look back and have any regrets.

 

When I started my first year of medical school, I was about 14 weeks pregnant with my oldest daughter. I was grateful to have passed the first trimester by the time I started. I was lucky to have a smooth and relatively easy pregnancy. I found a OB provider  at one of the downtown hospitals that was close to school, and took advantage of our days off to schedule appointments. I was very nervous to share the news with the faculty. I was worried about judgment, or that perhaps I would be seen as a less serious student. But I was pleasantly surprised with the response I received. They were unbelievably supportive, offering me time off for appointments, setting me up with an advisor from the Office of Learner Affairs, and hiring  a tutor to complete the anatomy segment of the curriculum with me  due to risks associated with formaldehyde exposure in the labs during pregnancy.

 

I had discussed my options for a leave of absence with the dean a few months before I was due. Because of the way the curriculum is set, I essentially had two choices: a full year off or no time off at all. We decided that I would take a year off and rejoin the next year’s cohort the following year. This decision was multifactorial, but a big part of it was that I had no idea what to expect since this was my first child, and the thought of coming right back to school seemed way too overwhelming with so much unknown.

 

My daughter was born in March of my first year. That was March 2020. Little did any of us know how the world was about to so drastically change. My maternity leave looked a lot different than I had imagined it - there were no brunch dates, no manicures, no mall excursions. It was a lonely year where I felt so isolated. My husband and I had to learn to raise our first child without our village and our loved ones missed so many important milestones.

 

When I returned to school in March 2021, I was five months pregnant with my son. Joining a new cohort was a lot easier than I had imagined thanks to Zoom school (one of the only perks of covid!). At that time, we  chose not to send my daughter to daycare out of concern around covid. Every day I would drive 30 minutes to my parents house, park myself upstairs in my old room to attend virtual classes while my amazing mother, father, or sister would watch my daughter.

 

With my second, I decided that I did not want to take another full year off. I felt that I knew what to expect this time and most of my school commitments were still virtual. My only other option was to not take any time at all, and so we did everything we could do to prepare for me to go straight back to school. We are very fortunate that my husband gets three months paternity leave with full pay and so we arranged for him to be off. My mother in law agreed to come in for a month and help us out after my husband returned to work. We found a daycare for my daughter, where we eventually sent my son too when he was five months old. I bought wireless wearable pumps so I could pump during class, in the hospital, or on my commutes. Most importantly, my husband and I mentally and emotionally prepared ourselves for the craziness that was to come. We kept repeating that if we couldn’t make it work, I would take the year off. Having that backup plan in place made everything seem less daunting. 

 

My son was born in August 2021. Less than two weeks later I was in my car, driving to the hospital for clinical skills while pumping, ready to start my second year of medical school. I don’t remember much from that time to be honest. It was a whirlwind, but somehow we made it through. We all worked extremely hard to make it work while still ensuring we could be there for our two babies. Being mostly virtual was such a gift as I had time to drop my daughter off before class started and grab some baby snuggles between classes. I would wash dishes, fold laundry, cook dinner while listening to online lectures. I would study on the phone with friends while taking my baby for a walk. When I think back to that year, I don’t think I was ever doing only one thing at a time. I was unbelievably exhausted, but thrived off of the chaos and felt so fulfilled. How was I so lucky to be pursuing my dream career while at the same time having the two most amazing kids who brought me unparalleled joy?

 

When I started my third year, we hired a nanny to help with the kids in the morning and to take care of the housework. This was hands down the best decision. Although it was a huge expense, it took so much of my load off and let me spend the limited time at home I had being totally present with my family. I am forever grateful to the amazing and loving nannies we were lucky to bring into our family during this time.

 

Then, I got pregnant again. I was grateful to have finished my Internal Medicine and Surgery rotations, as those have the worst reputation of being the hardest and most intense specialties for clerks. That being said, the first trimester was still rough. I was so nauseous and exhausted but still had to be in the operating room for 6:00 am on Anesthesia or take shifts from 8:00 pm- 4:00 am on emergency medicine. I kept small bags of candy that I could quickly eat if I started to feel unwell. When I was on ENT, I almost passed out in the operating room and the nurses had to wheel me out and get me juice while the anesthesiologist assessed my vitals. After performing at 300% during the day despite the fatigue and nausea, I would come home and spend time with my family. Finally, after the kids were both asleep, all I could think about was crawling into bed and letting my tired body rest. But being a clerk doesn’t allow for that. At 8:00 pm I would start my studying for the night, often not getting into bed until after midnight. These were some of the toughest times of this journey for me. I just kept telling myself to take it hour by hour, day by day. I knew that there was a limit on how long I would feel so awful and reminded myself daily that I could do hard things. 

 

After I got through the first trimester, things got significantly better. I still almost passed out in almost every C-section or gyne surgery I attended during OBGYN, but the staff and residents were so understanding and always prioritized my well-being. I enjoyed some of the lighter rotations during this time and was feeling ready to welcome the newest addition to our family.

 

At the very end of July, our beautiful boy was born. This time, I decided to take another full year off as I knew I was heading into elective season and wanted to ensure that I was able to give these rotations my absolute best. Although that means that I will be yet another year behind and have to join my third medical school cohort, I remind myself daily that it’s not a race. Everyone is on their own path. I will end up where I am meant to be when I’m meant to be there. Being on maternity leave now gives me the luxury of lots of time for self reflection. When I look at my life, I feel a tremendous sense of pride, not only for what me and my family have been able to accomplish, but also that I was able make hard and unconventional choices that I knew were right for me and my family, even if I didn’t see anyone around me doing what I am doing.

 

Having the unwavering support of my husband and extended family has been critical in allowing me to pursue these dreams. My husband is the unsung hero of this story - the one who picks up the mess that I leave behind. He is my cheerleader, and the best partner in life I could ask for. I most definitely could not do half of what I do without him.

 

This path is not for everyone. I don’t want to make it sound easy because it’s not. But I want people to know that if starting a family during medical school is something you’ve thought about doing but didn’t know if it was possible, it is possible. If I’ve learned one thing during this time, it is this: you can do hard things. I believe the most precious gift I have given myself is a life that I will be able to look back on without regrets.

 

 

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