‘The Two of Us Are a Team’: NCHS ’09 Grads Balance Marriage and Medicine

James Laird and Mary Escherich became friends after they ended up in several classes together during their first three years at New Canaan High School. As juniors, James took Physics with Mary, and sat behind her in AP Calculus with Jennifer Lee. The NCHS ’09 classmates would engage in intellectually stimulating conversations.

James Laird and Mary Escherich on their graduation day from New Canaan High School in June 2009. Contributed: Mary Laird

“We just ‘got’ each other,” James Laird recalled on a recent afternoon. A “best friend” after three years, James soon started to see Mary as more.

“And [asking her to] junior prom, I think, was the first time Mary saw me as more than just a friend as well,” he said, recalling the late-winter day he approached Mary at her locker and asked her to the dance. “Mary’s such a good person, so it was easy to fall for her.”

That was 10 years ago.

In 2014, the pair wed in Westport and last month, each of them—Dr. Mary (Escherich) Laird and Dr. James Laird—earned a medical degree from New York University, launching parallel careers that speak not only to their singularly well-matched minds, but also to a powerful force underpinning their relationship that has seemed always to want the best friends together.

Mary and James Laird on their graduation day from Columbia University in May 2013. Contributed: Mary Laird

“I think it’s helped that James and I are pursuing similar things,” Mary Laird told NewCanaanite.com when asked how their pursuit of a shared passion has benefited their marriage.

“For example, when you text the other person, ‘I’m in surgery,’ the other one knows exactly what you mean. They always understand, which is very helpful. Yeah there are times where we can’t, unfortunately, spend as much quality time together as we’d like. But, at the same time, we’re each other’s biggest support system.”

Interests in medicine

During her first two years of high school, Mary dislocated each kneecap, and the surgeries that followed immersed her into the medical world in a new way. Already a science buff, she saw for herself how a doctor and surgeon could change a life for the better.

Mary decided then to study medicine and make it her profession, and never wavered.

“Nothing in my time in health and medicine has changed my mind about wanting to pursue it as a career,” she said. “I’ve had the mindset that this type of work is so interesting and so different from those jobs that have you sitting at a desk. It allows us the chance to interact with different types of people everyday and help them. What could be more gratifying?”

Meanwhile, that junior year Physics class clarified James how much science captivated him. He competed in Junior Engineering Technical Society competitions—applying math and physics to solve problems—and likewise decided to study medicine.

Mary and James Laird leaving their last ICU lecture in Bellevue Hospital in New York, N.Y. on their final day of medical school. Contributed: Mary Laird

James also credits Dr. Peter Czuczka, a pediatrician whom he had long “really looked up to.”

“He always made me feel comfortable when in his care,” James Laird said. “He and my parents always said to me that your health is the most important thing in life. So wanting to contribute to the efforts to help people be healthy and keep them that way, I felt, would be one of the greatest ways to improve the world.”

‘Match Day’

In March, the Lairds found out where they’d be spending their residencies—a day known as “Match Day” among physicians.

“Match Day’s a unique experience,” Mary said. “You know you’re going to get life-changing information at noon on that Friday, March 16. All of us who are matching are gathered in a room and receive an envelope which we all open at the same time. And where that envelope says you go is where you have to go.”

Leading up to Match Day, the Lairds each had sat in interviews all over the country.

“We interviewed at Yale [New Haven Hospital], at hospitals in New York, the Midwest, the South, all over the place, really,” James said.

“And you also get to see what life could be like at a lot of these different places and get excited by all the possibilities each one holds. However you can’t let yourself get too excited because you don’t know which one’s going to be the place you end up in. Plus, there was no certainty we would end up together, despite being married. So you really put your life on hold when interviewing.”

To which Mary Laird adds, “You really can’t plan your life until you open that envelope.”

Mary and James Laird holding their “Match Day” letters saying they’re spending their residencies at Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Conn. Contributed: Mary Laird

Even before opening said envelope, Mary recalled, tears streamed down her cheek—a consequence of a stressful interview process. Then she looked at her letter, then looked at James’s and when she saw they both said Yale-New Haven Hospital, burst into tears, (which can be seen in this touching video shared by NYU Medical School’s Facebook page).

“That was our top choice,” Mary Laird said of Yale-New Haven. “I felt a lot of happiness and relief that not only did we finally know where we both were going, but we were going to be together. Getting into Yale was the culmination of the work and effort we’d done over the five years [of medical school].”

The Lairds will start their residencies at Yale-New Haven Hospital in the summer of 2019, after spending an internship year in New York City—Mary will spend her residency in dermatology, while James in radiation oncology.

Choosing personal fields

They chose their respective fields for personal reasons.

After developing interests in both pediatrics and general medicine during her medical school core rotation, Mary took an elective in dermatology.

Mary and James Laird at their graduation from NYU Medical School in May 2018. Contributed: Mary Laird

“It’s a very visual field,” Mary said. “You get to see the pathology you’re treating. Almost every disease can present on the skin. And people who have skin diseases, it affects how they interact with the world around them. Everyone can’t see diabetes or heart disease, but if you have psoriasis of the skin the whole world knows. So when I was in clinic it was incredible to see how you were changing the way people present themselves to the world. The skin is very polarizing. People will either find it very cool or very gross—I’m definitely one who lands in the ‘cool’ camp.”

Meanwhile, James gravitated toward radiation oncology because of a member of his family he was close with succumbing to the horrific disease cancer is.

“My dad’s side of the family has a history with cancer, including my grandmother,” he said.

“She passed away from breast cancer and was really the first, and to this point only, person that I was close with who I’ve lost. So, subconsciously, it made me want to research the disease’s many forms. I’ve done a lot of cancer research over the years and, in my opinion, cancer research is honestly the best and most exciting form of research in medicine because of just how far it’s come in the last few years. Prior to med school you’re not much more than a helping hand. But once in med school the research you’re a part of becomes more personal. So I’ve spent time researching the different factors of what causes breast cancer to reoccur in people.”

Long distance

For much of the past 10 years, the Lairds have ended up studying (and now working) in the same place, yet it’s the one year they spent apart that most helped strengthen their relationship, Mary and James said.

After graduating from NCHS in 2009, they attended different universities. Unlike many couples who date during their senior years and go off to separate schools, though, the Lairds never had a conversation of whether they would stay together.

“We were, of course, going to stay together,” Mary said when asked about that time.

So Mary went off to Washington, D.C. to attend Georgetown University, James to New York City to attend Columbia University, respectively. Yet it was evident to Mary during that first semester in D.C. that Georgetown wasn’t the right fit for her, she said.

“I wasn’t that happy there,” Mary recalled. “I wanted to be more in the heart of D.C. whereas Georgetown’s more on the outskirts. A lot of students would just stay around the area of the school, which wasn’t what I wanted. I hadn’t been that thrilled with my classes or found a group of friends I truly fit in with. Then I’d go visit James up at Columbia and in the time hanging out with him and the friends he made there, I felt I fit in so much better with them. Columbia was in the heart of NYC, too, which is what I wanted. James was so happy there and I could see why.”

So, after her freshman year, Mary applied to transfer to Columbia and was accepted.

“The cherry on top was that James was there, too,” she said.

High school proposal

Perhaps an even bigger “cherry on top” came in the summer of 2013, after the couple’s graduation from Columbia, when James proposed to Mary a different question than “Will you go to prom with me?”

While both were in their early-20s at the time, the two had been together for more than five years—which was more than enough time for James to know that Mary was ‘the one’, he said.

“By that point we knew we were both going to NYU together,” he said. “And there was one night, in particular, that summer when we were sitting on the couch in my basement and were talking about all the different challenges that were ahead for us in med school. And Mary was nervous so I say to her, ‘Oh, don’t worry. It’ll be a memorable time because by that point we’ll be engaged.’ To which Mary goes, flabbergasted, ‘What?’ So I totally blew it.”

Yet James did not propose that evening, leaving Mary to wonder when the question might come. Romantic dinner after romantic dinner passed, and still no proposal. Mary thought to herself, “OK. Maybe this won’t be happening this summer,” she said.

Then, on their final day in New Canaan together before moving back to New York, James took Mary to the high school. They walked around the campus, reminiscing about all the significant memories, all the while James carrying a box in his pants’ pocket.

The walk concluded when James brought Mary to her locker on the main floor—that same one by which he had asked her to junior prom—got down on one knee and asked for her hand in marriage.

“I was so happy to say ‘Yes,’ ” Mary Laird recalled. “I knew James was the one for a very long time. I loved him so much then and continue to do so every day since. We’re a team and we will rely on each other till the end.”

Mary and James Laird on their wedding day, August 1, 2014. Contributed: Mary Laird

They wed Aug. 1, 2014, at the Inn at Longshore in Westport, in a ceremony with breathtaking views of Long Island Sound, surrounded by family and close friends.

Future balance

Now, as their four-year anniversary approaches, the couple, each of whom has siblings—Mary a younger sister named Samantha (NCHS Class of 2011), James a younger brother named Chris (NCHS Class of 2011) and a younger sister named Jessica (NCHS Class of 2013)—is talking about starting a family of their own.

“We just went to my dad’s 60th birthday party where we watched a lot of home videos and reminisced through old photos,” James said. “Which makes you think about how much we want to be able to do that someday, too.”

It’s a feeling his wife echoes.

“We definitely want a family,” Mary said. “I think the timing in the field of medicine’s always tricky. Our families both still live in New Canaan and we loved growing up there. We know what a great place the state of Connecticut is to have and raise a family. We’ll see what the next few years bring, but we definitely see that in our future.”

Professionally, the doctors also are striving to find an appropriate balance between science and love in caring for their patients.

“In medical school you learn, learn, learn—facts, figures, things—you’re filled with knowledge,” Mary said. “But at the same time, your patients need you to express empathy and understand their point of view and be able to express why the specific treatment is right for them. Our profession is all about finding that proper balance between treating them with scientific information and as a human being—and we found our respective fields offered that.”

James agreed.

“That love part, being able to be there on such a personal level for a patient, is one of the reasons why we went into medicine. We both could’ve been PhD’s because we both love science. But the human part of medicine drew us to be medical doctors as opposed to just scientists and researchers.”

For Mary, medical professionals are said to “practice” their profession because “it’s not a pure science.”

“Rather it’s both an art and science at the same time,” she said.

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