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Stanford University School of Medicine

The hospital becomes a different place: pregnant in medical school

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

“What was it like to be pregnant on the wards?”

I was pregnant throughout most of my third year of med school, so I’ve been asked this question a lot. For a while I had a habit of brushing it off. “Being pregnant isn’t extra work,” I would point out. “The baby-growing happens automatically while you go about your day.” But over time, I realized that the hospital became a different place for me when I became pregnant, both because of the mental state I brought to my learning and because of how I was treated by others. Here are some of the best and the worst aspects of my own 40 weeks living in that world.

Good stuff:

  • An incredibly meaningful OB/GYN rotation. Being pregnant when I first coached a woman through labor and delivered her baby made an already surreal, beautiful experience even more personal. Furthermore, delivering other people’s babies demystified childbirth for me, making it way less scary when it was my turn.
  • Being taken more seriously by some families on Pediatrics. Fairly or not, many parents trust other parents more than they trust the clinical training of a pediatrician. Although I wasn’t a parent yet, I looked kind of like one. So I was often granted some (unearned) credibility in their eyes.
  • A powerful reminder of how health affects everything else. I was lucky to have an easy pregnancy by most standards, but there were days when minor symptoms—nausea, joint pain, headaches I couldn’t treat with medication, or just feeling a little off—made the already draining demands of med school take more of a toll. After this experience, I try to have more patience when I ask my patients to navigate complex health systems or make major life decisions all while suffering from symptoms far more severe than the ones that brought me down.

Bad stuff:

  • Feeling like my identity was reduced to “the pregnant student” in the minds of some of my superiors. A handful of attendings thought that pointing at my belly and asking “What’s going on in there?” was totally appropriate behavior for rounds. One resident would greet me by asking “still pregnant?” when it had been only two hours since he had last seen me. Another time I was pointedly quizzed in clinic about the recommended amount of weight gain during pregnancy (not OB/GYN clinic, which would have made sense).
  • Assumptions about my professional seriousness based on my appearance. I was once scrubbed into the operating room during my third trimester and the attending surgeon asked me if I was interested in Surgery. Before I could answer, the resident blurted out incredulously, “does she look like she’s interested in Surgery?” Few times in my life have I been more aware of my gender and the barriers that come with it. The flip side of that coin is that when people found out I was interested in Pediatrics, they would often respond with a knowing nod and say, “of course, that makes sense.” I wanted to explain that I am interested in Peds for reasons that I find professionally compelling, and wanting to have my own kids is a separate decision.
  • Never being able to get my work done without having to answer well-meaning pregnancy questions. While I was pregnant, many people I had to collaborate with in the hospital wouldn’t get around to talking about the patient with me until I at least shared my due date and explained that it’s not a boy even though I “carry it all in the front.” It wasn’t the end of the world enduring some overly personal small talk, but it did sometimes get frustrating.

In the great scheme of things, the way Stanford Med handled my pregnancy gets an A+ in all the most important, practical ways. My mentors and advisors were overwhelmingly supportive, I was never penalized for having to attend medical appointments, and I was granted a huge amount of control over my academic schedule and timeline. Nonetheless, the learning environment was undeniably different because of my pregnancy. I hope that by speaking openly about it, I can help future students in my position experience more of the good lessons that came with pregnancy on the wards, and less of the negative assumptions.

Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez entered medical school at Stanford in 2010. She was born and raised in Kentucky and went to college at Harvard before heading to the West Coast for medical school. She currently splits her time between clinical rotations, a medical education project in end-of-life care, and caring for her daughter, who was born in 2013. 

Photo by Chip Harlan

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