194 – November/December, 2014
by Megan Arszman
Being a doctor is a full-time job. It involves devoting your life to preserving the health and well-being of those around you. In the same respect, being a mother is a full-time job, as you devote your life to raising a child and helping him or her discover their own path.
Put the two together and you have Mom, MD, someone who has learned how to juggle a high-demand career with the high-demand home life of being a mother. Not only is life busy at the hospital, and at home, but add in the hustle and bustle of a weekend at the horse show and you might get a taste of what life is like for Kelly Stille, PsyD., and Susan Urba, MD. Both women are doctors at the top of their respective fields and mothers of horse show kids competing at the highest level of competition.
Paging Dr. Susan Urba
Dr. Susan Urba grew up in Chicago, far from the horse show world, and attended medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While in medical school, one of her rotations involved working with cancer patients. That experience inspired her to continue her study of medical oncology. “It’s an exciting field that looks into treatments for cancer, but you also get to look at other issues that cancer patients have, such as the need for emotional support and other related illnesses. It’s a broad spectrum,” she explains.
Dr. Urba started doing a lot of clinical studies with esophageal cancer, but she has since moved onto developing more of a specialty with palliative care. Palliative care emphasizes pain and symptom management for cancer patients and, in some cases, it involves end-of-life care.
At the University of Michigan, Dr. Urba has helped develop a program called the Symptom Management and Supportive Care Program within the Cancer Center. She works with cancer patients who have particularly difficult-to-manage symptoms or who struggle with serious decisions such as when it might be in the patient’s best interest to discontinue treatment that’s resulting in a poor quality of life.
About 17 years ago, Dr. Urba was a staff physician when she and her husband, Richard Mendel, adopted their daughter, Katerina, from Russia. Richard was working in the automotive industry in quality control, but he has since retired. When Katerina first came into their lives, Dr. Urba worked with her superiors to figure out how she could be a devoted mother without giving up her career.
“When we first got Katerina, I didn’t want to give up my job, but I didn’t want to not get to see her, so I talked with my division chief about how I could keep my job and still be a mom,” she explains. “I took some time off through the Family Medical Leave Act, and in those first nine months I worked a couple of days at the hospital, while the other days I stayed at home. I worked three days a week when she was younger, and then I gradually moved to working four days a week when she became a teenager.”
Having the flexibility of a four-day workweek allows Dr. Urba to be able to support her daughter when she’s at the horse show. “I’m very grateful that I have the support of the university to allow me flexibility in my schedule. If I need to take Friday or Monday off to get to a horse show, I can.”
Dr. Urba credits the university hospital system for allowing a flexible work schedule. She explains that with the university system there are residents and fellows who cover shifts when a patient is admitted over the weekend or late at night. Since she’s not in private practice, she doesn’t have to go in at odd hours. She also helps her colleagues by covering their pager when there is a weekend they need off and she’s at home. One such example happened when Katerina was competing at the AQHYA World Show, where she was crowned the World Champion in Hunter Under Saddle in 2013 and 2014 on her horse, Willys On The Green. Dr. Urba knows the family will be in Oklahoma for a week-and-a-half, so she is able to work out her schedule with the other doctors and the nurse practitioner so she can be gone that entire time to be part of Katerina’s support system.
“She does so much, but it’s like she’s a super hero,” Katerina says. “I don’t know how she does it, but she still finds the time to go to the horse shows, all while being so good at her work.”
Dr. Urba recalls one make-it-work moment when Katerina’s show schedule included the 2012 AQHA Novice Championships in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Because she had to attend a mandatory committee meeting, Dr. Urba couldn’t make the drive from Ann Arbor to Murfreesboro with Katerina. On the last day of the meeting, Dr. Urba flew to Nashville, rented a car to drive to Murfreesboro, checked into the hotel for about four hours of sleep, and then joined Katerina and their trainer, Rosie, at the arena, with two hours to spare, to watch her daughter win the Novice Youth Hunter Under Saddle Championship. “I was so glad I was there,” she recalls. “It was fun and good for me to be there. Sometimes you just have to make things happen.”
There are those times that Dr. Urba can’t make it to a horse show, but Katerina understands. “At first, I’ll be a little down about it,” Katerina says. “At the same time, I realize that I have my trainer, who is like family to me, but also I know my mom is out there helping other people that need her. I know that if my mom didn’t put in the time and hours that she does, there would be no horse. Without my mom working as hard as she does, I wouldn’t have the life or the horse I have.
“It helps me to know that she’s doing what she can to make sure that I’m happy,” she says.
Paging Dr. Kelly Stille
You can say that Dr. Stille is continuing the family business; she grew up with a mother who was a clinical psychologist. “While growing up, I was exposed to psychology by seeing my mom’s testing materials and learning how to conceptualize cases,” Dr. Stille explains.
She also grew up showing horses, so she’s well aware of the demands it takes to be successful in the show pen. Because of her connections on the Paint Horse circuit, Dr. Stille attended college at Texas Christian University and then got her Masters and Doctorate in clinical psychology. During that time, she also married her husband and had three children, all while she was doing internships and her dissertation. She was still able to finish her degrees, including a postdoctorate in psycho-pharmacology while balancing raising three boys, two of which are twins Ryan and Austin Stille. For five years she has been running the neuropsychology program at John Peter Smith Hospital in the Level One Trauma Center in Fort Worth, Texas.
Recently, Dr. Stille has become more involved in sports concussion research, which combines her interest in studying the human brain with her lifelong passion for horses. “Concussion is actually the fourth or fifth highest rate of traumatic brain injury for girls between the ages of 9-15,” she says. “It’s not widely publicized, so that’s been my goal, as of late, to increase awareness.”
This awareness has rubbed off a little on Ryan and Austin, according to Dr. Stille. She says the boys know how to assess situations when their friends might fall off their bikes, including one time when Ryan helped make sure a fallen friend went to the hospital when he suspected a concussion after a bike accident.
“I know our trainers, Jeffery Gibbs and Jenna Hyde, are very safety-conscious and very careful about the situation the boys are in. I feel very safe with them and our horse and the things they are doing,” Dr. Stille says.
Dr. Stille’s days tend to be spent in the Trauma Center, where she’ll meet with the trauma team. The trauma team consists of surgeons, nurses, social workers, nutritionists, and a respiratory specialist. Different cases are discussed and the team talks about any changes in treatment. Sometimes, Dr. Stille has interns she’s teaching, so they’ll be part of the consultation. Once a week, she’ll do a memory clinic where she meets with patients who have been referred for a memory evaluation, either because of dementia or a traumatic event. “Memory is a common issue, and it’s a concerning one for everyone,” she says.
Dr. Stille’s week usually involves 50 hours of hospital work, but she’s careful not to let her work take precedence over her family. She’ll start working early in the morning so she can be around in the afternoon when the boys get home from school. “We always have dinner together as a family; I think that’s an important thing,” she says. “Dinner has always been a priority throughout our children’s lives. They will have dinner with at least one parent all the time. Sometimes, either my husband or I can’t be there for dinner, but we don’t want the boys to come home to an empty house.”
Ryan and Austin are quite successful in the show pen, just like their mother is in the medical community. Ryan and the family’s horse, T Town Sensation, earned four World Championships at the 2012 APHA Youth World Show in Showmanship, Horsemanship, Novice Trail, and Youth Trail, in addition to earning the High Point 13 and under and High Point Western Horse titles. Austin rode “Nicky” to a World Championship in Horsemanship at the 2014 World Show.
It might seem difficult having two twin boys, now 16, share the same horse, but the Stille family makes it work with help from their trainers. In addition, Dr. Stille believes horse showing has helped her boys mature and handle any difficult situations they might encounter. “They learned that if they want to show and want everything to work out, they have to help out,” she explains. “I think this has taught them how to manage their time effectively.”
It Takes a Village to Balance This Life
Both Dr. Urba and Dr. Stille agree that without a strong support system, they could not continue to be at the top of their respective fields while raising children on the horse show circuit.
“I say it takes a village to raise a horse show girl,” Dr. Urba says. “I can’t do it alone.”
Katerina’s father is retired and stays at home, for the most part, to keep things running around the house. He does come to some of the larger shows, and he will keep in touch with Dr. Urba about how Katerina is doing, no matter if the event is big or small. Dr. Urba credits Katerina’s trainer, Rosie, for being willing to take Katerina with her to shows and sometimes lets her stay in her trailer. Back at the hospital, Dr. Urba’s nurse practitioner sees patients when Dr. Urba can’t be there. “It works out well, but you have to think ahead of time and make that happen.”
Dr. Stille also believes that strong time management is necessary to help balance the family/work/showing horses lifestyle. “Balance is really good to learn in so many things and so is time management,” she says.
For example, Dr. Stille tries to make the most out of the time of day that she’s the most efficient, so she’ll see patients and write her reports during the early morning hours. Other tasks, such as driving to a horse show or loading the trailer, are done when she’s not the most efficient.
“I think every working mom has to figure out what her priorities are and then work from there to make sure she has a good management schedule in place,” Dr. Stille says. Creating a priority list helps to keep everything balanced. It might mean that your house isn’t always immaculately clean, but if you’re spending time with your children, that’s what’s most important.
“Your time with your children isn’t always going to be there,” she says. “When they’re growing up, that time is so precious; you’re going to want to be there because you won’t get it back. My mom and I spent so much time together driving to shows and lessons, and I think those hours we spent together were so special to us and formative in our relationship. Those are the times you don’t get back. I think for the boys, these days are the times we don’t get back, so I really prioritize that too.”
Aside From Being Super Mom…
Outside of work and when they’re not cheering on their children from the sidelines, both mothers still find time for themselves. Dr. Urba started training for marathons a couple of years ago and has power-walked her way to earning money for charities such as World Vision and Doctors Without Borders in the Chicago and New York Marathons.
Dr. Stille has found herself back in the saddle. After taking time off from the show arena to focus on her career and her children, she’s started to show Nicky in Trail and Horsemanship and hopes to have a horse of her own soon.
Making the Most Out of Motherhood
Dr. Stille and Dr. Urba understand that each mother’s life is different, but they know it’s hard to try to balance the need to be successful in your career and be there for your children.
“[Being a full-time working mom] takes a little bit of juggling,” Dr. Urba says. “It’s not the end of the world [if I don’t make it to the show], and Katerina realizes I might have to miss something. For the most part, I haven’t. It’s really important for me to be at all the shows.”
Dr. Urba’s advice to other busy horse show moms is to take the time to figure out what works best for your own life; every case is different. “If someone says they work full-time and they can’t devote much time to being a horse show mom, that’s okay because it’s different for everybody. I worked to really develop a network with horse show moms and friends, and we’ve been so lucky that our trainer has been willing to work with us to make it happen,” she says.
“Talk with other moms and see what they do. No one thinks less of you if you have to be at work,” Dr. Urba continues. “We feel guilty enough about missing work or missing a horse show, and that’s not the way to live. I’ve learned how to get rid of that guilt, and I tell myself over and over again that I’m doing the best I can. I can’t do everything in life, but I’m going to try to make the most of it.”
“Your children reap so many benefits from being involved in horse showing,” Dr. Stille says. “Kids learn responsibility and are driven to go for their goals. I think as long as they want to be there, they want to do it, and they’re not doing it to fulfill the vicarious needs of their parents, they’ll love it.”
“I think it’s the parents’ job to make the link between the responsibility of working with horses and future goals and how this is important for the child now and as they grow into developing their own career,” Dr. Stille advises.