Story by Frank Pagani
“When I began lecturing on marriage to medical students and physicians about 25 years ago, I used a cartoon to introduce my lectures. The cartoon showed two physicians having lunch together in the hospital. The caption says: ‘Show me a doctor whose wife is happy, and I’ll show you a man who’s neglecting his practice.’ So wrote Dr. Michael F. Myers, professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY Medical Downstate Medical Center, 13 years ago.
So much has changed since Myers used the cartoon as a jumping off point for his article, “The Well-Being of Physician Relationships.” For one, women now account for nearly half of matriculated students pursuing medical degrees, according to a 2012 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges. For another, there has been an increase in the number of physician duo relationships. About 16 percent of physicians who participated in the 2010 Great American Physician Survey conducted by Physician Practice said their spouses or significant others were also physicians.
When two young doctors are married to each other like Maria Lufrano and Victor Azer are, it’s hard to imagine how they manage to balance the all-consuming demands of their busy professions with their own relationship and the responsibilities that come with parenthood. (The Tuckahoe residents have a 3½-year-old daughter, Ashley).
Consider the daily demands and pressures. For the past two and half years, Maria has served as an internist and gastroenterologist with the Scarsdale-based office of doctors George and Jeffrey Shapiro. On average, she performs three endoscopic surgical procedures a week and tends to patients in the emergency rooms of New York-Presbyterian/Lawrence Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital and White Plains Hospital.
Victor is in his sixth year as a cardiologist with Premier Cardiology Consultants in Lake Success on Long Island and performs emergency cardiac surgical procedures, including insertions of catheters and pacemakers, at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.
Typically, each puts in 12-or-more-hour days. They are both early risers (about 6 a.m.) and he is the first one out the door because of his commute to Long Island. Typically, he does not return home much before 7:30 p.m. She gets home a bit earlier because of her shorter commute.
But even when they are home, it’s impossible to “separate yourself totally from the primary responsibility you have to your patients,” Maria says. “I give patients my phone number and email address so that I can provide them with continuous quality care.” Being on call also means that sometimes a good night’s sleep is interrupted in the wee hours to respond to a medical emergency.
So given this, how do they manage to be there for each other and for their daughter? “Fortunately, we are blessed with extraordinary family support,” Maria says. Because her father, sister and brother live nearby, they help look after Ashley, who is a preschooler. “But they are no substitute for our responsibilities as parents,” Maria adds. “Every opportunity I have, starting in the early morning, I make a point of spending quality time with Ashley.” Maria and her daughter enjoy apple picking together and Ashley looks forward to taking walks with her father in a nearby park. “She also loves when we visit her grandparents in Queens,” Victor notes.
In some ways, as a result of both of them being doctors, their marriage of six years has been enhanced. It also helps that the two of them began their journeys in the medical profession at the same time. They met at New York University in Manhattan while pursuing their undergraduate degrees in the mid-to-late ’90s and both simultaneously attended New York Medical College in Valhalla, he, earning a doctor of medicine degree and she, a master of science in biochemistry and molecular biology. Later she obtained a doctorate in osteopathic medicine from the New York Institute of Technology, College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury.
“Having someone go through what I experience professionally makes life easier,” Maria notes. “If one of us was not a physician, I am not sure how much understanding there would be when the spouse is not home on a Saturday night because of an emergency. As it is, being a doctor can be very stressful.”
Victor recalls when his wife gave birth to Ashley at midnight at White Plains Hospital and he went to work the next morning instead of visiting her and their newborn. “Maria understood my situation.” Nonetheless, he made up for that first day’s absence by driving directly to the hospital from the office every night to spend some quality time with his wife and baby girl.
In their free time (which is at a premium), she loves to cook, bake and entertain. Both are into physical fitness. She runs when she can and works out at home every night, and he plays tennis. He also likes to work with his hands, diagnosing and repairing automobile engines. They both love to travel.
It comes as no surprise that they are passionate about health and wellness – both for their patients and their family.
“Although people are living longer, sadly they are not as healthy as they can be,” Maria says. “The majority of patients I see need to be put on a nutrition and weight-loss program.”
Victor is seeing an alarming spike in younger patients having heart attacks. “There is no question that changes in personal lifestyle with respect to diet and exercise can go a long way in preventing heart disease.”
They get deep personal satisfaction in helping people who are most vulnerable and making a difference in people’s lives – whether it’s stopping the internal bleeding of a 92-year-old woman or treating a 27-year-old heart attack victim.
“A patient should be treated with compassion and understanding as if they are like family,” Maria says. “You have to think that one day you may want to be treated the same way.”
So if having two doctors in the same household means less time spent with each other and with the family, Victor’s answer is, “The key is to make each and every moment count. It’s the quality of the time spent, not the quantity.”