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Lives of Doctor Wives: Ten Tips for Surviving Medical School

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ten Tips for Surviving Medical School


by Desiree Jang

Hi LDW Readers! I wrote the following article 4 years ago as an MS-I Survivor, representing the “married with children” segment of our med school student advocate group. We are now grateful survivors of medical school and embracing residency life for the next few years. Everyone’s journey is different, but here are some of my practical survivor tips for the first year (or two!) of medical school when your student’s days are dominated by lectures and exams.

1. Send food – healthy food, snacks, entrees. Unmarried friends really appreciated my food, too! Not everyone has a family member nearby to feed them. At our campus there were no on-site food options aside from vending machines, and nothing within walking distance, really. Even if there had been, providing healthy options from home is a great life-saver when your student is learning about the horrors of junk food on the body. When I was out of town (which is a great test-week strategy), I froze lots of food back for him in individual containers.

2. Come visit often. Don’t be afraid of the school! It may not be a long visit, but students can’t study for hours on end without a break. We started med school with an infant, and taking him by for short visits was a highlight for my husband – and a welcome break for his classmates, too. Our little one was quite a popular stress reliever and some of my fondest memories of MSI-II are taking him to the school for study breaks.

3. Try to understand how busy students are. Keep the end goal in mind. Realize that everyone has a different schedule – some manage to study at home, some at Barnes & Noble, but my husband preferred to study in the library or a break-out room. That meant hours and hours away from home. I won’t lie – it was really tough. However, our down-sized space meant that the baby crib only fit in the office (or his desk only fit in the nursery, if you will) so it was really his only option. I’ve observed that different classes of students often study in similar ways – in our class, nearly everyone studied on campus. One thing that helped us was to have a “set time to call” – I asked him to call if he would be home later than x-o’clock. (For us, that was midnight. It seems extreme now that I type it). That way I didn’t have to bother him and didn’t have to worry.

4. Use technology to your advantage. It’s much easier to text than to talk during the day. Jumping on the smartphone bandwagon that first Christmas made our lives SO much easier. I was able to keep him updated on all the mundane details of our day. Even though he didn’t often or always respond, he liked feeling like he was part of our day. Later on, we used Facetime and Skype sessions during his away rotations. I also made sure to send frequent updates to both our families, even though “he’s studying, the baby and I are doing fine” got mundane after a while.

5. Set zero expectations – this goes for more than just chores! I shook my head when a friend of mine complained that between her husband’s crazy schedule and his chores at home, he never had time for family! Eliminating any chores or duties he had before med school will give you more family time. I’d much rather have him hanging out with us than mowing the lawn – and he was still helpful when I asked, he just didn’t have any set jobs. If your student is one of the “lucky ones” who has a photographic memory or likes washing dishes for stress relief, fantastic! But take away that expectation… For his unmarried friends, help from family was greatly appreciated – just picking up a bag of groceries, doing some laundry, or basic cleaning were all tasks they had trouble fitting in.

6. Remember you are their buffer… family and friends from life before med school will probably go through you (because your student may not ever answer their phone or reply to messages anyway). It was extremely helpful for my parents to attend Admitted Student Day and hear first hand that they needed to set zero expectations for students to attend family events. My husband missed my sister’s wedding, but because I didn’t make it a big deal, neither did anyone else. He was married to medicine now… it’s expected. I made sure to send pictures and updates to both sides of the family and quickly started blogging to keep everyone updated on our life in med school. If you keep giving information, you’ll get fewer “how is he / how are you / how do you like it?” messages.

7. Be an encourager. Students are constantly beaten down in medical school. That’s the natural result of taking a group of incredibly smart people in the same place… there’s bound to be a bottom 90%. Students are extremely competitive, and there aren’t many secrets in med school when it comes to exams. Students are going to have bad days. They will probably fail at least one exam, which has likely never happened before. At some point they are going to question if they are good enough, and if med school is the right decision. Your job is to keep encouraging them - one test doesn’t matter. It’s not unusual for a number of students to fail the first test. It often comes down to the final for most. Students will have bad days when they want to give up. Always stay positive. If you have no words, offer a hug. They need to hear that you believe in them and it will all be okay. On a side note, your life is also going to change dramatically, but it’s important not to vent to your student – make friends with other med school spouses / significant others, get involved in a local church, and use these people as your outlets. Word of wisdom: be careful whom you vent to – people who aren’t in a relationship with a medical student just don’t “get it”.

8. If your student is really struggling, encourage them to use resources available: MSIIs are great mentors and always willing to help, especially with practical things. The school has resources as well. A huge number of medical students experience depression and anxiety. It is in the school’s best interest for your student to succeed. Don’t doubt that they will want to help.

9. Just when you think you are never going to see your student again, one day he will show up at 5 o’clock and ask where dinner is! This usually happens after a big exam, so keep up with the test schedule on the school website if said student is too busy to tell you. Plan ahead for after test night. After big exams (in our case histo and anatomy were the big ones first semester) your student will be exhausted and will want at least a 3 hour break – or 12 hours in my student’s case. Use these times to relax and rejuvenate as a family. If you’re living far away, be sure to call your student after the test – send food, and be a support.

10. Find a mentor or mentors. Along our journey, before there was even a LDW blog or the Facebook group, I had people in my life ahead of us on the medical journey who encouraged me, listened to me, believed in me, and helped me find the joy in our often difficult journey. Join your local student advocate group, and attend things you’re invited to. If no group exists, invite some significant others over for coffee or a play date! You need face-to-face / individual interaction. As you survive past 1st and 2nd year, BE a mentor to new significant others in your shoes. It is rewarding and you make connections that will carry you through.

The first year will go by faster than you can imagine. Set zero expectations and you will rarely be disappointed, and sometimes be pleasantly surprised. Make friends with others in your situation, and you won’t feel so alone and you can bond over shared experience. Live each moment together with purpose. Don’t wait for the end of the semester, or graduation, or the end of residency to live your “real life”. This is your real life now. Embrace it and enjoy the ride with the rest of us. We can do this, together!

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2 Comments:

Blogger Gabriela Pena said...

LOVE this Desiree!! We are just starting on this journey and these bits of advice are INVALUABLE! Its funny when you read this it seems like common sense things to do, but we so easily forget when we're in crisis mode...LOL!! Thank you to all you LDW's!

February 19, 2013 at 5:45 PM  
Blogger Brenda Salladay said...

Great stuff!! You are such a wonderful writer!!

February 22, 2013 at 5:00 PM  

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