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Lives of Doctor Wives: A Different Type of Survivor Story: When Match Day Goes Awry

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Different Type of Survivor Story: When Match Day Goes Awry

By: Anonymous

Match Day season is upon us. A date that I became aware of long before my med student husband was cognizant of the fact that while we got to “pick” from among our med school acceptances, residency would be left up to the whim of a secret computer algorithm… Match Day was a day that I looked forward to with dread and excitement for 4 years.  A day that I could finally begin planning the next 4-5 years of our life… I am a long-term planner, and I held on to that date in my countdown calendar for all I was worth.
Too often in medicine (…and dare I say, life?) we only hear success stories (and even the failures that turn into success). We hear well-deserved gleeful shout-outs about outstanding board scores, enthusiastic reports of matching at one’s #1 choice, or the coveted perception of having a virtual pick of specialties and programs. Match Day is the culmination of years of hard work, and while not everyone’s match is their dream come true, those are the stories most advertised. There’s the occasional tale of a scramble (now known as the SOAP), or the rare resident who changed specialties mid-residency to pursue the dream, but it all ends well, and everything is still ultimately part of the Divine Plan. Anything less than success is not possible – you got into med school and you’ve passed with flying colors, right?
Then the unthinkable happens… it happens to you. If your story isn’t one you want to shout from the rooftops or ever relive again, welcome to our journey. Match Day is a dark cloud in our once sunny road of being married to medicine, and at one point we weren’t sure if there would ever be a rainbow at the end. I want to share our experience, because I am sure there are others out there who feel as alone as I did, amidst a sea of “We Matched!” success stories.
The long, dark night:
As you may have guessed, we did not Match. I say “we” because we have a team mentality that shapes our identity as a couple. However, not matching wasn’t the worst of it for us. The worst was that we were also not able to immediately scramble. Due to a still inexplicable chain of events, my husband’s “good” med school GPA had somehow translated into a Step 2 board exam score that fell just shy of the mark needed to pass. So, he studied hard and retook it, but the first available date was later than we had expected, and on the retake he barely fell short… again. Not having a Step 2 board score meant he was ineligible to apply for post-match positions (we are unsure of what this would have meant if he had matched at a program).
The timing of it all made it worse. Why?? WHY did this happen to us? Why now, when there was no time to retake the exam before the match? He had never significantly struggled academically in undergrad or beyond the normal challenges of med school. Practice board scores were average. Step 1 was a relative breeze. No repeated classes. A better than average GPA. Nothing that could have predicted a Step 2 failure for sure. We could point at this or that possibility – having the flu on the first test date, severe anxiety on the second…? Or a divine lesson or punishment from above? Overanalyzing did not help.
We had to honestly evaluate where we stood and where we could potentially go at that point.
“That point”, a time when we both seriously questioned the decision to pursue medicine, came down to a bottom line of $200,000 in student loan debt that we couldn’t simply wish away. We understandably felt that the door had slammed shut in our face. Clinically, he was beloved by patients and preceptors and had gathered outstanding letters of recommendation. We knew that logically, standardized test scores aren’t the best factor in determining what makes a good doctor, but that didn’t help our nightmare. Worse yet, our med school had a three-strikes-you’re-out board exam policy, meaning that this dream of medicine could go up in smoke mere months from graduation, unless he could produce a final successful attempt at this now dreaded exam. To further crucify our hopes, we found out that he did not pass the exam retake the night before Match Day… instead of an envelope of dreams containing our life’s destiny for the next four years, Match Day gave us an anti-climactic email stating the dreaded truth: we didn’t match, not even at the program that had promised us the moon (we had taken their words with a huge grain of salt, but there was still that desperate hope). Oh, the timing…
It was like everything in our lives crumbled into a pile of dust… we shut down our social media accounts, turned off texting, and let the phones ring. We left a host of friends and family clamoring publicly and privately for match results, wanting to rejoice with us… not realizing that every well-meant inquiry only drove the nails deeper into our hearts. (I have since stopped asking anyone where they matched, unless it is publicly announced.) Of all the things we have weathered together as a couple, this was our darkest hour. Until this experience, we had always had hope and my husband’s relentless ambition… he had proven he could beat many odds, yet now we were faced with “one last chance” that felt insurmountable.
One of the hardest things was all the phone calls from program directors that came in after the Match, hoping my husband would scramble into their unfilled position… phone calls that abruptly ended with the news that he did not yet have a step 2 board score. We were in the depths of despair. It felt like if he’d only had a passing Step 2 score at that moment, he would’ve been into a scramble spot within minutes of the You-Didn’t-Match bombshell.  I’m not even going to pretend that we handled this well… we are very private and we suffered privately – we had been burned, so to speak, when a classmate spread news all over that he didn’t pass the first time. This time it turned my husband into a shell of who he once was. It took our marriage to a new low, and nearly destroyed us. We only had each other. Through all of it, it was my husband’s willingness to seek help to move forward that eventually saved us…  he reached out to the school and his preceptor, applied different study methods, and took an anti-anxiety medication to get himself through the third exam attempt. Fortunately, it worked.
The light at the end of the tunnel:
Fast-forwarding a few months, my husband passed the exam on the third and final attempt… scores were of course delayed until the absolute last possible moment. Finally eligible to apply for post-match spots, we found that process was also not easy (hello, another round of expenses interviewing around the country) when finally The Position presented itself… At long last, it was as if the heavens opened and angels sang! Rather than feeling we were trying to kick down the door, it finally felt that the door swung wide open and the red carpet rolled out… He got a spot in a specialty we had never considered, in a location off of our previous radar of consideration. He accepted the spot on Friday and left for work on Monday. Even in our shock, we rejoiced.
Life was a whirlwind. It completely ripped us out of our comfort zone. Yet, he feels fulfilled. He is happy. WE are happy. He thanks God every day that he gets to help people; that he GETS to do medicine. And thankfully, clinical skills are his strength, even if standardized testing isn’t - so he has earned much praise and respect from his superiors. Looking back on our Match experience, we questioned then if medicine was the path meant for us. The miraculous details of how things played out, most of which I have not included here, left us zero doubt that THIS is where we were meant to be, doing what he is meant to be doing.
I will not question that life in medicine is hard, as is being married to it. However, our experience not matching left us humbled and forever grateful for what we see as divine intervention getting us to where we are today. I vowed during our nightmare that if things worked out, gratitude would forbid me from ever complaining about the “perks” of residency.
Being in medicine is a privilege, and too often I have heard unconventional match stories end with “But it all worked out and this is exactly where we were meant to be, doing what we are meant to be doing.” It sounds cliché, and the rollercoaster ride that results in such a statement is not an experience I would wish on anyone. I truly hope your match day IS a dream come true, but whatever happens - whether or not you end up in our shoes – cling to that thought: It WILL All Work Out. Obviously, not as we had planned or hoped. We truly believe that the hardest journeys produce the deepest perspectives and the most profound gratitude… and possibly, some of the best doctors.
It is so easy to be bogged down in the hardships of this life… and I’ll be honest – of course, ours is not the worst case scenario. There are beautiful, strong, amazing people who go through what we went through more than once. I say – without any judgment to any who verbally lament their suffering – that we are grateful to be in a special breed of medicine and to have our unique perspective. Not matching the way we had planned changed our perception of thankfulness and appreciation for the privilege of being here. And once those stinkin’ student loans are paid off, he is more than welcome to go work for the sanitation company or the Peace Corps or anywhere else he chooses… but I have a feeling that since medicine is what he loves, he will continue on this path… and I will stand proudly by his side.

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Blogger Joanna said...

Awesome post! I wasn't sure what the ending of the post was going to be like but I was rooting for you & your husband midway through! You guys persevered & kept going that's all that matters & he's doing what he was meant to do!

March 1, 2013 at 9:18 PM  
Blogger Blanca Wilson said...

Oh my goodness I nearly cried when I heard the good news! Thank you for sharing. What an experience.

March 7, 2013 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger Becky said...

What a great post. And posting as someone whose husband didn't have the awesome "Match Day" experience that he wanted.. He did end up with a great spot by the end of the week, there is still that disappointment and 'stigma' attached to it. But realizing that even if we don't understand right this minute the why of it all, we can trust and are trusting that there IS a purpose and God will work through it all.

March 10, 2013 at 1:07 AM  
Blogger Debbie said...

I also loved this post. My favorite quote was, "We truly believe that the hardest journeys produce the deepest perspectives and the most profound gratitude… and possibly, some of the best doctors." Isn't it true that our struggles in our life help us be more sympathetic to the struggles in other people's lives? Thank you for the reminder!

March 12, 2013 at 8:49 AM  
Blogger La Vie Fantastic said...

This is just Sooo close to being my story. The only difference is that we're still waiting for The Position.

March 12, 2013 at 3:59 PM  

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