Oncologist Confidential: I Gave Birth on Surgical Call (and Didn't Take Maternity Leave)

Dana Najjar

November 07, 2019

Arsyl De Jesus, MD, is the only radiation oncologist in her practice in Amsterdam, New York.

Arsyl De Jesus, MD, gave birth to her first child while on call as a surgical intern. Her daughter, now 20, was born about 7 weeks early, and De Jesus went back to work 3 weeks later. "If I did take maternity leave, that would mean that I would have had to extend my training, and I wouldn't have been able to start my residency on time," she said. So she went back to work.

De Jesus now practices full-time as a radiation oncologist at the New York Oncology Hematology Amsterdam Cancer Center in Amsterdam, New York. She chairs the US Oncology Radiation Oncology Quality Assurance Committee and serves on the boards of directors for New York Oncology Hematology, the Susan G. Komen Northeast New York Affiliate, and a local hospice.

This account of a conversation between De Jesus and Medscape Medical News editorial intern Dana Najjar has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your practice and what drew you to it.

Amsterdam, New York, is a little bit of a suburb, or more rural. A lot of times we have patients that are seen in a larger hospital system and get referred back to me to get care nearer to their home. I think maybe more than a hospital-based practice or an academic practice, being in the community, you become part of the community.

It seems like you must be very busy.

I kind of treat my job as my third child. I have two children ― two humans ― and I know that somehow they've suffered. That's what the mom guilt says. They say otherwise. We have really focused on quality time. We make sure that we take trips with them. My oldest is 20. I had her right out of medical school in my first year of residency. If I didn't have her, I wouldn't have children, because it's not easy. My son is 14.

When my daughter started school I was finishing residency and going into private practice. I didn't get to do a lot of the mom things, and that breaks my heart. When she was in kindergarten, she was always like, "Why can't you be a real mom, why can't you volunteer for this?" That just tore at me.

One day I had my mom make her a little doctor's white coat and a little stethoscope, and I brought her to work. I showed her what Mommy did and had her shadow me. After a few times, she said, "Mom, don't worry about those school things. You don't really have to do them. I see what you do at work that's more important." That daughter of mine is now in her second year of college and she wants to be a doctor. So I think I did OK.

My son's the same. He'd work for my secretary doing odd jobs for her, odd jobs for the nurses, and he loved it. That was my way of sharing what I did with my kids. We have an annual Survivors Day and I bring my kids. When I volunteer for walks and relays and when I speak in the community, I bring my kids. I want them to see me at work doing what I love, and hopefully they don't feel as sad that I have to spend so much time there. When I'm home, I'm there, and I don't do my work until they're put to bed or they're not doing anything. I do bring my work home because I don't want to stay there until bedtime.

It's hard to be a mom, a doctor, and be more than a doctor. As a woman who wants to be up in the ranks, you have to work twice as hard and be twice as loud and just do so much more than your male colleagues. The medical world has gotten better. People are being recognized for their work and not for their gender, and I think I am an example. I'm female and I'm a minority, and I'm maybe the last person someone would expect to be where I am. But that came from a lot of hard work, and that's what I tell my daughter.

US Congressman Paul Tonko of New York and his mother Frances Tonko stand with De Jesus at a ceremony following the renovation of the radiation suite where she sees patients.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Probably not having my daughter during my internship year and giving birth on call would have been better.

I was a surgical intern. I found out I was pregnant in the first or second month of internship and gave birth about 7 weeks earlier than my actual due date. Maybe that was because I was on my feet a lot. You didn't really leave, you didn't have normal work hours. That was back when they didn't limit work hours for residents.

Did you get any time off?

It was the regulated 3 weeks off. I didn't have maternity leave. If I did take maternity leave, that would mean that I would have had to extend my training, and I wouldn't have been able to start my residency on time. I gave birth to a premature baby, so 2 weeks were in the hospital and I had 1 week at home. My husband, bless him ― he's not a doctor ― brought the baby over when I was on call so I could continue breastfeeding. Every few hours I would run up to the NICU [newborn intensive care unit] where they had the breast pumps so I could pump some milk for her. It was a lot of work.

One of my dreams is to serve 1 or 2 years with Doctors Without Borders or some other contribution like that with my daughter when she is finally finished with medical training. I'm so excited. To be able to do something like that with my daughter, the one that was very, very difficult to carry and give birth to, proves that I didn't screw up that bad.

What's the most unusual item in your office?

I have a table that's a refurbished sewing machine. A patient of mine who makes furniture gave it to me. I have it in my waiting room. My little waiting room is like a living room. It has pictures of me, pictures of my staff, and little trinkets that my patients have given me in a curio cabinet.

Patients have given me wreaths they've made for me. I hang them and when they see theirs they say, "Ooh, this is what I gave you." It's very homey. It's how my staff feels and it's how I want my patients to feel ― when they're coming in they feel like they're with family. When you have that sense that people know you not just by your medical record number or your diagnosis, but they know you as a person, that's half the battle won.

Dana Najjar was an editorial intern for Medscape in the summer of 2019.

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