Friday, August 1, 2014

this med school life.

Awhile back I had a request to write a post about being married to a medical student. Oh boy! That's a tall order. However I feel like I already write about that ALL THE TIME. Ad nauseum. So much so that I was/am hesitant to write more about it. Buuuuut deep down I am a people-pleaser. Soooo tonight I am going to give it all I've got and write even more about my life as the wife of a medical student. I will also be simultaneously attempting to rock my not-so-babyish-baby to sleep since she discovered how to escape her pack n play earlier tonight. Should be an interesting combination of activities.

(Feel free to skip this post entirely if you are completely tired of hearing me prattle on and on and on about medical school. I completely understand. At this point even I am getting tired of med school talk! This topic may only interest a select few.) 

First a little background information. Some context for our medical school experience. In order for my husband to attend medical school we moved to a new city in a new state. The move took us 400+ miles from our nearest family members and 200 miles from our closest friends. At the time we had a 4 year old and a 1 year old. We knew no one in our new city. We had been married for 8 years. I had completed a two year Master's program and was working full-time as a Physician Assistant at a job I loved! I went down to part-time due to the move. 

When Joe started medical school I truly believed we were past the hardest hurdle. Getting into medical school. Ha! Today I think of that as the easy part. Hardly a blip in the grand picture of (our) life. We had survived PA school as a family (of 3) so I wasn't completely naive to the challenges we were to face. I knew it was going to be gruesome for Joe and it would require many, many hours of studying. I just didn't realize how much it would affect ALL of us as a family. I didn't expect it to be so hard for me

For practicality's sake I will go in chronological order (and I really hope this doesn't turn into a novel!). Joe's first year of medical school was a breeze...for me that is. I continued to work part-time (in my same job where we lived prior to med school...I worked every other weekend and stayed with friends...the kids were in daycare while I was out of town.) My life wasn't all that different from pre-med school except I lived in a new state. Plus I just wasn't all that invested in medical school. I had work and the kids and the new house to worry about. Oh and I was newly pregnant with (oops!) baby #3! Medical school was just this thing my husband did during the day Monday-Friday (and most Saturdays) mostly 9-5ish. It wasn't much different than when he worked at the bank. For me that is! Ask him about first year and he will sing a very different tune.

Then came baby #3. Just five days before second year began. And two weeks before our eldest started kindergarten! Along with our newest bundle of joy came an indefinite maternity leave and crazy post-partum hormones for me. And suddenly I cared about medical school. I was invested in this process. My world revolved around raising my babies and making sure my husband succeeded in medical school. It was this year that my eyes were opened to the true competitive beast that is the medical training process (more on this in a bit). However our family life remained much the same. Joe was gone during the day but home for dinner and the kids' bedtime. Then he would resume his studies late into the night (or very early in the morning). 

At the end of second year Joe took his first board exam, AKA Step 1. This eight hour test was supposed to evaluate how much he had learned in the previous two years. (For neurotic me it felt like an evaluation of his knowledge + how well I had supported him and allowed him to study & prepare). And the score is a major determining factor for being accepted into residency. And by this point I was acutely aware of the fact that not ALL medical school graduates go onto residency because there are not enough residency spots for all the newly graduated medical doctors! Which is crazy in my humble opinion. 

Back to the subject at hand. The test was done. We both felt relieved and excited to move onto the next stage. Third year and clinical rotations! We were excited for more hands-on-learning for Joe and less book study time. I thought the worst was over. Unfortunately it was just beginning. Third year was HARD. Joe was gone all the time and exhausted when he was home. I was doing most things solo and feeling lonely. To add insult to injury, just as I was beginning to feel like I couldn't handle third year, we got Joe's Step 1 score back. And it was less than stellar. He passed. But his score was not what he needed/needs to get accepted into residency in emergency medicine (which is his dream!). We were crushed. We tried to pretend like it was all okay. We even took the kids out to dinner to "celebrate". It was a tense evening. Someone threw up at the table next to us...and we hardly cared. It didn't bother us. We were numb. We were simply going through the motions. On the drive home that night I picked a (stupid!) fight with Joe and then silently looked out my window and cried. I felt like WE had failed.  

That was a real low for us. And I realize it sounds petty (and maybe it is petty?!) to be so upset by a low test score. But our future as a family relied/relies on THAT score. To survive FOUR years of medical school and to accrue astronomical debt in the process AND not be able to go onto residency and become a licensed and board certified physician?! That sounded like a nightmare for our family. And that test score brought that nightmare a little too close for comfort.

The only "solution" to this problem was for Joe to do an amazing job at his clinical rotations and "wow" his clinical directors + score significantly higher on Step 2 (to be taken at the end of third year). Which translated to him being the first student at the hospital in the morning and the last one to leave. Always available and willing to go the extra mile for his attending physician. While simultaneously studying even more for Step 2 than he did for Step 1. This was his recipe for academic success. And my recipe for a loooong year. At that moment I felt like I had already given as much as I possibly could second year and I couldn't imagine giving more third year (and I wasn't the one with the hard job!). 

THIS quickly became my norm on the home front...

Fast forward a few months and we all survived third year! So where does that leave us now? Currently Joe is on his second "away rotation". An away rotation is a 4 week rotation at a hospital away from your medical school. It is at a hospital that has a residency program in your desired specialty. In our case that is emergency medicine. It is essentially an opportunity to learn about the residency program and hopefully make a good impression. And the kids and I are here with him. Supporting him. Because that's what we do. Over the next few months Joe will wrap up his away rotations and start applying for residency. We will be applying far and wide. Only eliminating large cities with high cost of living. But the good news? Joe ROCKED Step 2. He did exactly what he needed to do. So moving forward doesn't seem quite so scary these days. Sure there are still a lot of hurdles and unknowns. But one thing I have learned these past three years is that we can do it. Whatever IT is. 

After applying for residency comes "interview season" this fall/winter. Hopefully during which Joe will be traveling quite a bit for many, many interviews. The kids and I will be hunkered down at my parents' house for those adventures. And then in March comes "Match Day". The day all 4th year medical students open an envelope find out where they matched for residency (or didn't match). Then it will be a mad rush to research and set up plans for our life in the residency city (housing, schools, kids activities, etc). Then graduation. And just like that this whole medical school experience will be done. Forever. 

And then we will be in residency (for three years). At that point I will probably look back at this experience and think THIS was the easy part. A blip in the picture of our life. Because life is funny like that. 

So that sorta turned into a novel. Sorry. And yet I feel as though I barely skimmed the surface of what it's like being married to a medical student. There is so much more I could say. Like the financial aspects and living frugally. And how this life has affected our children (good & bad!). Whether or not I would recommend others to start medical school...depends on the day/my mood at the moment. And so on and so forth. But this is enough for one day. 

Most of all please realize that this is just my experience. Everyone's medical school experience will be vastly different depending on life situations, circumstances and personalities. Regardless, I believe the universal experience of medical school for everyone (the student and spouse) is that it is a rollercoaster. The highs are high and the lows are low. Once you are on board, there is no looking back. Enjoy the ride!


  1. I loved your reflections on Step 1 -- the results, your reaction, and your eventual response! I was really moved by your honesty and how real it felt as I read. <3 and hugs

    1. Thank you - that means a lot to me coming from someone that has lived this crazy life. This post has been a long time coming...lots of processing and moving on had to happen before it could be written. But it IS part of our story (for better or worse) and this is the place I share our story. My hope is that it will encourage others in the "med school trenches".