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AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DR. JUDY DAYAN NAMER

By: Kelly Jemal Massry



Most children fear going to the doctor. They dread being poked with needles and tongue depressors, they squirm as otoscopes investigate their ears and some of them run out of the office all together! Not
Dr. Judy Dayan Namer, a pediatric gastroenterologist and mother of four. “I never minded going to the doctor,” she insists “I was always very curious in the office. I used to open the jars to see what was inside, and examine my chart and growth curve when the nurse would set it on the counter. I had a positive experience with
my pediatrician.”

Judy has wanted to be in medicinefor as long as she can remember – even as she knew it was an unusual career track for a Syrian Sephardic woman. “I remember thinking that my aspiration was kind of bizarre because it wasn’t something people in our community did,” she acknowledges. Still, Judy was driven by this goal and her parents supported her in it always. “They understood that it was going to be really difficult, but they were careful in their advice not to dissuade me from it. They felt, ‘as long as she’s happy, we’re going to support her along the way,’” Judy relays.

Judy chose to attend Brooklyn College because of their partnership with Downstate University Medical School. Through this selective program, students earn combined BA and MD degrees, gaining automatic admission to medical school, as long as their GPA is upheld and MCAT requirements fulfilled. “Going there was a huge decision,” Judy says. “I had to decline admission to Columbia University for it.” Though she’d badly wanted to attend her first-choice college, she ultimately opted for the path that was already laid out for her, wanting to make the road to becoming a doctor as smooth as possible.

Medical training requires intense and long-lasting commitment. The journey lasts at least ten years – a daunting prospect, to say the least!  “It’s a very scary thing, thinking about how long the training is,” Judy vouches. “You have all these years ahead of you and all you really know about it is that it’s a long way. It was definitely something that made me nervous.” Not nervous enough to give up the idea, of course – but nervous enough to be practical. Though there were other specialties that interested her – like obstetrics and surgery – Judy  stuck with pediatrics, the field that had sparked her interest in medicine from the outset. It was a field that was already familiar to her and the residency was only three years, as opposed to the seven years required by some of the others. Time was certainly a factor as she paved her path forward – because of course there were other life goals to consider – namely, becoming a wife and mother.

With her atypical dreams, Judy always assumed she’d marry outside of the community. As a working doctor, she thought she wouldn’t be able to give her family a traditional home life and she assumed her prospects would narrow because of it. “I didn’t think this was what a man in the community would want,” Judy admits. “I thought it would be respected and admired, but not desired.” Her husband, Menahem, surprised her, though. By the time she met him at the age of 19, she was already on her way to becoming a pediatrician, enrolled in the dual program offered by Brooklyn College and Downstate. He was well aware of where she was headed – and he thought it was great. “He liked that I could contribute intellectually and financially to the relationship,” Judy says. “He was always, and continues to be, supportive and encouraging – never discouraging.”

That attitude would prove to be so important to Judy going forward. She’d need both his physical and emotional help once the two of them married and children came along. “Family is very important to me,” Judy says. “I wanted a child ever since I was a child; I never had any younger siblings. I knew this might not be the best life choice for me, but I always said if this gets in the way of my starting a family, I’ll stop my training.” In moments of hesitation about the future, and there were many, Judy always remembered something her mother had told her: “The years are going to pass regardless. At the end of four years, you’ll either have a medical degree or you won’t.’” As long as Judy felt she could keep going, her mother believed she should, and her support never wavered. She spent countless weekends over the many years studying with her daughter, and listening as she read passages on human physiology, pharmacology and disease.  For this, Judy is
forever grateful. 

The challenge for Judy became, and continues to be, balancing
a demanding work schedule with her growing family. She knows her priorities – medicine is never going to be more important to her than motherhood – but at the same time, it adds such value and meaning to her everyday life. So she works tirelessly at what she calls a “mental and physical juggling act.” 

Judy’s four children range in age from seven years to four months. Her first consideration is making sure there’s someone to be with them when she’s not available. This means a lot of babysitters and a very hands-on daddy! When sheis off from work, Judy tries to be as present as possible.  She has found ways to make it to nearly every class trip, every parent-teacher night and every school performance. She has managed to pick up her kids from school every day, tuck them in each night with a bedtime story and prepare home-cooked Shabbat meals that her family can sit down together to enjoy. To her, the moments when she can relax with her family are what make life worth living. But it isn’t easy. “It’s a constant daily struggle,” she attests. “There’s no way you can be in two places at once; but it’s important to come to terms with that reality and just do the absolute best that you can.”

In theory, Judy knows that she is only human. Still, regret seeps in on both ends of the equation. She envies her colleagues, who have progressed further in their careers because they don’t have children to worry about, and at the same time, she feels a pang of longing when she envisions being home with her infant. “My children are my joy and my complication,” she says, while giving the impression that she wouldn’t trade a moment of it.

Most days, Judy is clear-headed, focused and determined. The inner turmoil she sometimes feels rarely surfaces, because through the years and with each new stage she’s managed to adjust and find peace. She’s been kind to herself, both accepting her limitations and lauding each new accomplishment in the workplace. And against all odds, her kids have flourished. “They understand your struggle,” she says of children in general, “even though they may not understand exactly what your struggle is. Once you find peace with it, they feel that in your interactions with them. Once I came to terms with it myself, my kids were fine.” Like many children of working parents, Judy’s have an innate sense of pride in their mother the doctor. They understand that when she leaves home she is helping sick children in need of her care. She can keep going secure in the notion that she is setting an empowering example. “There are different norms that are acceptable for different people,“ she proclaims. Judy has found hers and she is owning it, never for one minute believing that her children will grow up to be anything less than independent, successful, and happy individuals.

Currently on the last leg of her training, Judy is nearly a fully certified pediatric gastroenterologist. She’ll specialize in childhood gastrointestinal disorders – everything from the commonly experienced stomach ailments to the more complicated diagnoses (Celiac Disease and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis). In preparation, she’s performed scores of colonoscopies and endoscopies. She is also training in hepatology — the study of liver diseases, ranging from the common infectious hepatitis, to autoimmune hepatitis, acute liver failure, and transplant medicine.

Once her training is complete, Judy will begin practicing medicine, as she has long dreamed of doing. She’ll be equipped to care for children with common childhood ailments, but she’ll also be able to draw on her highly specialized knowledge when the situation demands it. She hasn’t yet figured out how it will all play out, but she’ll endeavor to be a great doctor while still being the best wife and mother she can be to her family.

Now at the end of her medical student journey, she has come to see that becoming a doctor was possible, if only because her determination, and the support of her family and friends never wavered during the process. “If the passion is there, go for it,” she advises women who share her ambition to become a doctor. “It’s not easy by any means. It requires hard work and a lot of motivation. If the motivation is not there, it may not be the right choice for you. But if it is there, the desire to start a family shouldn’t be the thing that dissuades you.” As Dr. Dayan Namer has proven, a woman can have both – she just has to find the balance that works best for her.