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Doctor Spouses

Doctors Heather Hagerman, left, and Alex Fisher are spouses and anesthesiologists at Queen of the Valley Medical Center.

Dr. Cheryl Thomas Peters and her husband Dr. Jim Peters hear a frequent comment when they go out together in public.

Here come the double doctors.

Not only have the two Dr. Peters’ been married for 23 years, they also work together at Adventist Health St. Helena hospital.

That means that patients, instead of his spouse, sometimes come first, said Jim Peters. Family meals or personal time may be interrupted or take a back seat to work – by either partner.

“This is the profession we’re in,” he said. “We don’t take it personal.”

The Peters’ aren’t the only double doctors around. It turns out there are a number of married doctor/physician couples who live or work in Napa County.

There are both challenges and benefits when a doctor is married to another doctor, they said.

“If we are both working full time, sometimes it’s like two ships passing in the night,” said Dr. Adam Kaplan, M.D. who is married to Dr. Jill Freeto Kaplan, M.D.

“What I love about it is that I have someone who speaks the same language,” Adam Kaplan said.

“It’s really great (that) we do the same job,” said Dr. Heather Hagerman, M.D. of her anesthesiologist husband Dr. Alex Fisher, M.D.

“We can help each other out,” or substitute for each other when needed.

However, “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Fisher. “The reality is the logistics of it make it dauntingly hard to have two people working full time as physicians and with kids.”

“We are able to talk about the emotional difficulties of taking care of patients,” said Dr. Mark Gardner, M.D., spouse of Dr. Barbara Gardner, M.D.

Being a physician “can be very, very trying emotionally,” he said. “Having a partner that is totally sensitive to that is a fantastic thing.”

Yet, “The challenges in marriage are just the same whether you are a physician or not,” said Barbara Gardner.

Working side by side in St. Helena

Dr. Thomas Peters – who has a DCN (doctorate in clinical nutrition) — and Jim Peters, M.D., co-direct the TakeTEN lifestyle medicine program at St. Helena Hospital.

“We met professionally (first),” said Thomas Peters. “It makes it easier for us. We started that way.”

The two seem to truly relish sharing the work and personal life.

“We have this noncompetitive respect and trust for each other that is the foundation for being successful,” she said. “He’s always cheering me on and I’m always cheering him on.”

Thomas Peters said because she’s often familiar with the patient her husband may be helping, she doesn’t feel excluded from their work relationship.

“I’m part of this experience,” said Thomas Peters. “I’m not on the outside.” If she wasn’t also a doctor, “I think it would be harder,” she acknowledged.

And while they do make sacrifices to their personal life, “it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice,” to them, said Thomas Peters.

One common misconception about being married to a doctor is that people assume the two have “got it made” financially, said Thomas Peters.

“People think you are wealthy,” she admitted. “You get judged,” she said. “I don’t like that part.”

She tries to avoid telling merchants she’s a doctor when buying certain things like a car or even a house. People want to charge you more, she said.

“You can’t negotiate the same way.”

Thomas Peters said her family isn’t driven by money. For many years the couple did mission work with their church.

“We spent a lot of time working at a very low wage.” They live in less expensive Lake County, instead of Napa County.

“We stay very humble,” Thomas Peters said.

Gardners grow marriage and careers

Mark Gardner is a cardiologist at St. Helena Hospital. Barbara Gardner is a pediatrician who works at the Lakeport Adventist Health clinic. The two have been married for 33 years.

Barbara Gardner said that one advantage of being married to a doctor is that “we understand each other,” especially when it comes to the inevitable work-related interruptions and delays.

Mark Gardner said one benefit of being a doctor couple is that “we are able to talk about the emotional difficulties of taking care of patients.”

“We can vent to one another. And also tell each other about when something great happens and understanding where the feeling is coming from. Having a partner that is totally sensitive to that is a fantastic thing.”

And then there are other perceptions.

Barbara Gardner said when their kids were younger other parents might have thought that because the two are physicians that the Gardner kids only ate healthy foods and watched “wholesome” TV shows.

She laughed when recounting the time a classmate stepped on a rusty nail at their son’s birthday party.

“I didn’t have a tetanus shot in the house,” she said. If she had, “I would have been tempted,” she said with a laugh.

Some people might have the idea “that maybe that we’re not ordinary folks. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mark Gardner said.

Being physicians, “really doesn’t carry past our life at the office,” said Mark Gardner. After work “That hat comes off and we’re just Mark and Barb.”

Physician couple does double duty at the Queen

Anesthesiologists Heather Hagerman and Alex Fisher live in Napa and work at Queen of the Valley Medical Center.

They’ve been married since 2004.

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Hagerman said she gets the same misconception about doctors living a “cush” life.

“A lot of people think that — unless they are other doctors and they know it’s not true,” said Hagerman.

Due in part to significant changes in the healthcare system and how much physicians are reimbursed for care, “doctors used to make a lot more money” than they do now, she said.

“And they don’t realize how much we have to be available to the hospital,” said Hagerman. “We don’t work 8 to 4. We are tied to the hospital.”

Fisher said that when people find out he’s married to another physician “they aren’t terrible surprised because most people know you spend a good chunk of your younger years at hospital,” he said.

As a young doctor, “You’re not really part of the regular social mix,” where 20-somethings typically meet each other.

“People like to refer ‘Grey’s Anatomy’” TV show when imagining romance and matchmaking on the job, said Hagerman with a laugh. “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.”

Kaplan and Freeto Kaplan: A young family in medicine

Adam Kaplan is a urologist on the medical staff at Queen of the Valley Medical Center. Jill Freeto Kaplan is a hospitalist on the medical staff at a sister facility, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. They’ve been married since 2009.

“I think the common misconception is that we’re rich and money-driven,” said Adam Kaplan. “But really we’re just a young family trying to get by (working) high powered, interesting jobs.”

“Medicine isn’t what it used to be,” he noted. “We’ve been working really hard at training for many, many years. You have debt and no savings.”

Adam Kaplan said being married to another doctor means that “I have someone who understands my day, and my life. And my patients and my commitments.”

His spouse is “someone who is caring and thoughtful and really takes pride in her work and who is incredibly intelligent. It’s fun to have a partner like that.”

“It’s a very busy lifestyle but we have a lot of appreciation,” for what each other does, said Freeto Kaplan.

Freeto Kaplan said because the two met in medical school, “We knew what we were getting into before we married each other.”

“We know it’s not going to be a set time when someone is home or is going to leave.”

Being a family of doctors has also rubbed off on the Kaplan children.

“Our children are all very comfortable with all of the different medical devices out there,” said Kaplan. “They all know how to use the stethoscope and otoscope and what a heart sounds like.”

Kaplan said at bedtime, his 5-year-old daughter will often ask to talk about how the physiological system of the body works.

For example, “’How do you make pee?’ She wants to know all about that stuff,” he said.

Freeto Kaplan said one common question she gets about being a doctor married to a doctor is what the family talks about at the dinner table.

“We talk about medicine a lot,” she said.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.