Confessions of a Non-Medical Medical School Wife

Today’s post is brought to you by Abigail White, wife of M3 Jeremiah White. She offers an interesting perspective about being married to a medical student. Thanks for your contribution, Abby!

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“So what do you do?”

It was July and my fiancé was just starting his first year of medical school. His school was hosting an event downtown for the new students, introducing them to Greenville and to each other. This was our first real med school event and I was excited to be the plus one.

The whole medical school thing was still a bit of a mystery to me, though. After all, I had just agreed a few short months before to become the wife of a student who was at the very beginning of his medical school journey. But I was excited to get to know the world we were jumping into.

“I’m in journalism,” I answered to a fellow plus one. “What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a nurse.”

As the evening went on and I met more plus ones, I started to notice a trend. Most of the other medical spouses and significant others I met were medical themselves, giving answers like: “Oh, I’m a doctor,” or “I’m a nurse,” or, most commonly, “I’m a med student, too.” Had I missed the memo?

Now, not only was I apprehensive about being a spouse in general, much less the spouse of a med student, I was starting to wonder if I was even qualified for the job.

As I stood there listening to my fiancé exchange a bunch of medical jargon with his fellow classmate, my apprehension only grew. I had not a clue what they were talking about and I knew that he could never have this conversation with me. If he spouted off these terms in my direction, I would be giving him the same blank stare that covered my face now. What in the world had I gotten myself into?

Three years have passed since that experience. During that time, my now husband and I have been through three years of medical school and two years of marriage. And though three years is not much time at all, and I am by no means an expert (far from it, in fact), I have learned a few things along the way about what it means to be a non-medical medical spouse.

  1. You do not have to be medical to be a medical school spouse

I think it is important to start with the fact that a medical degree is not actually a requirement for being married to a med student. Shocking, I know, especially after encountering countless medical couples.

When you think about it, it makes sense why it’s so common for medical people to marry other medical people. When you spend most of your time in a hospital or with classmates, it makes sense that your dating pool might be confined to mostly medical people. And, often, people are attracted to people who understand their unique lifestyle and what they do, especially within the medical community. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s required.

Every relationship is different. Every individual has different needs, different love languages. Medical students are no different. They all need something different, particularly when it comes to successfully navigating through med school. And though some med students need someone to talk medicine with 24/7, that’s not the case for everyone. Maybe what your med student needs is more than a medical sounding board or a study partner. So, I told myself, maybe my med student needed me to be something different, too.

Maybe instead of someone he can study with, I could be someone he took a break with. Someone that he didn’t feel the need to talk medicine with all the time (even if it’s only because he knows I wouldn’t understand). Someone he could find respite in instead of more of the same. Someone who might be able to offer a different perspective. Someone to remind him that there is a world outside of the hospital.

Maybe it’s OK to be an outsider.

On the drive home from that first med school event, I turned to my fiancé and asked: “Do you wish I was medical?” And I admit, I was nervous about his answer. After all, most of his classmates had chosen medical counterparts, not journalists. Maybe he was starting to wish he had done the same.

“Honey, why would I want you to be medical?” he said. “I spend every day surrounded by medical people talking about medical things. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the fact that when I come home after work and sit down for dinner, the first words out of your mouth won’t include ‘pathophysiology, medschool-acillin, or USMLE Step 429.’” (And no, I do not know what any of that means).

So, if you are a fellow outsider wondering if you can hack it in the world of being a medical spouse, let me assure you. You can. And you know what else? Your spouse may be better for it.

  1. Your lack of medical knowledge should not mean a lack of interest

I think it is equally important to realize that your lack of medical knowledge does not give you an excuse to be indifferent. Because although they may not need you to understand every syllable of medical jargon coming out of their mouth, they do need to feel supported in this huge undertaking. And the best way to be supportive, in my opinion, is simply to be interested.

I think a first, and easy, way to show interest is simply by asking questions. Ask about what they are learning in their lectures. What kinds of procedures they have been practicing. What skills they have learned. What interests them in medicine? What doesn’t interest them? What is it that makes them want to be a doctor?

As you ask these questions, not only are you demonstrating to them that you are interested in what they do, but their answers may clue you in to the kind of doctor they will become. Slowly but surely, their experiences, their likes and dislikes, are shaping them into the medical professional they will become. Don’t you want to be a part of that process?

No, you may not be able to understand everything they tell you. But, that’s OK. Ask anyways. Your med student understands your limitations and will help you understand. Sometimes they may not want to talk. Sometimes they will need to. Either way, show them you care. Because it never hurts to ask.   

  1. You are not the priority

Before we got married, we chose to do our marriage counseling with a former physician. And although I was excited to hear his perspective on medicine and marriage, I was equally excited to hear from his non-medical wife and receive counsel concerning my role in all of this.

Together, we knew that this couple could not only advise us about how to have a successful marriage, but how to have a successful marriage in medicine.  Because we knew that medicine might make our lives a little irregular, a little different from some of our other newlywed friends, and we wanted to know what to expect. We wanted to be prepared.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for what this kind physician and his wife would tell us. “Medicine will be like his mistress,” she said bluntly. “He will choose her time after time over you. And guess what? You have to be OK with that. This is what you signed up for.”

“This is most certainly NOT what I signed up for,” I thought. But that’s OK. Your husband is different from mine. My husband is smart and he loves me. He won’t have to study that much and he will always prefer being with me over being in the books or at the hospital. After all, he is my husband first and a doctor second.

Although this will be true some of the time, maybe even most of the time, this will not be true all of the time. It can’t be. Because when your spouse puts on that white coat and walks through those hospital doors, his number one priority must be his patients. If that is not the case, he is not going to be a very good doctor.

You want to know the truth? Sometimes, it’s really hard not to be the priority in your spouse’s life. As he spends hour after hour working in the hospital or buried in the books, it’s easy to feel neglected and hurt. Hurt because you would choose time with him over anything else in the world. Hurt because he simply can’t make the same choice, whether he wants to or not.

So, I am learning to not be the priority in my husband’s life. And though it is still hard sometimes, I try to remind myself of the bigger picture. My husband is training to do something incredible with his life, to follow a very important calling. Any lack of attention I have to sacrifice is worth it in the light of what he is working to become. And at the end of the day (or, sometimes, in the middle of the night), I am the one he comes home to.  And that’s good enough for me. It has to be.

  1. You are not alone

Before my husband even started medical school, we were invited to a spring preview day full of activities designed to introduce us to USCSOMG. One of those activities was a panel discussion just for the families and friends of the med students. There, we could ask questions and hear from a variety of experts on the skill of surviving medical school from the outside.

After the discussion, I spoke with one of those experts. Her name was Kristin, a young wife of a first-year medical student. Later, she took me to breakfast, just to talk about the joys and challenges of being married to a medical student.

I cannot tell you what that time with a fellow med school wife meant to me. Because she understood. She understood that sometimes, it’s just really hard. She understood that the road to becoming a doctor is long and tiring. She understood that although I am not the one going through medical school, in a way, I am going through medical school, too. She understood how medical school can consume your calendar, your conversations, your thoughts, and your plans for the future. She understood the potential toll that medical school and medicine in general can take on a marriage. She understood, and that was enough.

But there was still one problem. “So, Kristin, what do you do?” You guessed it.

“I’m a nurse.”

She was one of them! I thought I had finally found someone who truly understood, but she was one of them! But before I could plunge into deep despair over being the ONLY non-medical medical spouse in the world, she assured me that it didn’t matter. That even with a background in medicine, no one was fully prepared for this job, not even nurses, doctors, or even fellow medical students.

Thankfully, being a medical spouse, with or without a background in medicine, is not a new problem, nor is it a solitary one. There are many others out there who do know what it’s like to live your life, at least in a small way. So reach out to those people. Connect with other medical spouses and offer support to one another. Because if anyone can say “I understand how you feel,” it’s them, and you will be grateful for someone who just understands.

  1. Be prepared to not be prepared

When I sat down with Kristin, she was kind enough to share some tips of success on navigating medical school. She shared tips for warding off loneliness (she advised getting a dog – advice I happily took). She provided ideas on feeling involved in the journey, even when you aren’t knowledgeable about the subject matter. Expectations during test week (hint: have none). Ways to help them study. Times to provide support. Times to give space.

But, some of the best advice she gave me on being prepared for medical school was this: there is simply nothing you can do to be fully prepared for medical school.

As a person who NEEDS organization and stability, this was certainly a challenge for me (and still is at times). Because, no matter how many times my husband told me that Step 1 was a big deal, nothing could have prepared me for just how much that single test would consume him. No matter how many times he told me that he would likely have some long shifts, nothing prepared me for the lonely hours that came with the surgery rotation and that will likely come during the away rotations and residency. Really, nothing can prepare you for this life.

But you know what? That’s OK. Instead of taking the time to try to batten down the hatches and prepare for what the next 10 years are going to look like, just handle what’s in front of you today. For us right now, that means taking it one clinical rotation at a time. One week at a time. One day at a time. And when the unexpected shift comes up, we learn to roll with it, to be flexible. And when the study-free weekend comes along, we make the most of every minute.

The bottom line is that you don’t know what every step of the medical school journey is going to look like, making it impossible for you to fully prepare. So instead, take it one step at a time. Understand that the unexpected will happen, well-meant promises will sometimes have to be broken, and each day is going to be different. Learn to be flexible and enjoy the roller coaster that is medical school.

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