Wife, Mom, Surgeon and More
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Published on May 10, 2019

tricia and jon merrigan in the kitchen with their children

Wife, Mom, Surgeon and More

Preconceptions are powerful – just ask Tricia Merrigan.

Patients and colleagues are often surprised that this specialized breast surgeon has five children – including Royce, the newest addition to the family, who was born on New Year’s Day.

And when she meets the moms and dads of her children’s friends, they’re often surprised when they hear of her profession.

For Merrigan and her husband, Jon, it’s all about “making it work.”

“We do tend to fly by the seat of our pants sometimes, and we text on the fly a lot to make everything in the day connect,” she said. “We’re not too huge on planning – our mantra is simple: it’ll work – let’s go with it.”

It’s a life philosophy of balance and flexibility, but it’s also a mindset Merrigan sees as helpful across life and career’s many aspects. Jon is similar in his poise and team-first mindset. It’s something they continue to tweak as they close in on knowing each other for 20 years.

“In some ways, we’re a throwback family because there are seven of us now. But my dad was one of 13,” said Jon Merrigan, who operates his own business as a driver’s education instructor when not busy with Grace, Landry, Avery, Greta and Royce. “We started our family when Tricia was in general surgery residency, and while it wasn’t common in that training program, it wasn’t like anyone said you can’t do it. We went with it and we learned. It gets easier with experience.”

Between a large family, a busy entrepreneurial small business and a full surgical practice – does it ever feel like it’s too much?

“I do receive congratulations from many people – and many friends say they’ll pray for us. Yet I don’t think it’s really felt overwhelming,” Tricia Merrigan said. “It’s been an ongoing lesson in lifestyle and learning to deal with challenges you face along the way. It’s not always the perfect media-constructed ‘ideal family time’ scene. Sometimes it’s Domino’s for supper. And you know what? That’s OK.”

A Basketball Beginning

Jon and Tricia were students at the University of South Dakota in 2000 when they met in the DakotaDome’s weight room. They shot baskets together on their first date and went on to marry in 2005. Both came from families of four kids – Jon the oldest, Tricia the youngest – and both had influential parents who offered abundant encouragement.

Tricia’s father was a general surgeon in Mobridge, S.D., and she said many memories of her youth involved patients of her father’s telling her how much they appreciated her dad’s skills in saving and improving lives.

“I still meet people from that area who remember him or bring me stories of him helping them,” she said. “He was certainly an influence on my career path.”

Her husband earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, and he gained insight on family life from his dad. “Big families prepare you for a lot of things life can throw your way,” he said. “His example has helped me as our family grows. It takes planning and flexibility, but it also requires patience and communication.”

Balancing Careers and Growing Family

The Merrigans’ first child, Grace, was born when Tricia was in residency in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Jon and I both learned a lot,” she said. “He was the caregiver at home, for the most part, as I was working 80-hour weeks and pulling my weight on the residency team. We worked together to figure everything out as it was changing.”

When she completed her training and began her practice, Jon found a niche in driver’s education, a choice that helps them maintain a balanced life. “My job is busy, but I have the control I need to say when I will work and when I will not,” Jon said.

As an Avera breast cancer surgeon, Tricia Merrigan’s schedule is also more straightforward than it might be in another medical specialty. There are long days when she’s in conferences and the operating room for more than 10 hours. But there are weekends she can spend with the family, riding their horses, Maddie, Paris, Jet and J-Wow or attending a flag-football game.

“Being flexible with a family of seven isn’t simple, but we’ve come to realize that if you try that approach, you’re better off than letting a small setback ruin everything,” Tricia Merrigan said. “There are going to be frustrations – that’s part of life. But for our big family, it’s all about figuring things out.”

Read more about Dr. Merrigan's approaches to work and family.

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