By Amy Rakowczyk
One thing is certain during medical school: your medical spouse is going to study and work a lot of hours. This is a necessary part of becoming a doctor. They need years of studying, preparing, and training in order to be able to perform the job. The time required means that you, the medical student spouse/partner, will have less time with them. There will be fewer hours when they are available. That is the hard reality.
It’s easy to start thinking about how unfair this is. You are left with gaping holes of time and are by default in charge of all the non-medical school items. You are working harder too, with less support. The unfairness of it can quickly turn into resentment and bitterness.
In my previous article, “Defining What To Expect With Your Spouse,” I talked about the logistics of working out the day-to-day needs. I firmly believe that discussing and setting expectations, while being flexible, is one of the best tools you can use to keep you and your partnership strong and flourishing. In this article I’m going to address an issue that builds up over time—their absence—and some ways to cope with this reality.
As a clear example, during the fourth year of medical school, many medical students decide to do away rotations. For the medical student spouse, a month-long rotation out of town, or sometimes out of the country, can be an especially challenging time.
Even if you have only seen them for a couple hours a day, those little cameo moments help you stay connected to each other and feel supported. When your medical student is on an away rotation, however, you feel the full weight of their absence. Just like any couple, being apart is hard. It’s lonely.
Talking on the phone isn’t the same as chatting in person. The person at home takes on more responsibility without the support of their partner. It’s usually also the time when something will go wrong—like getting a flat tire or getting sick—and you’re left without your partner to help.
A friend of ours did two international rotations back-to-back during his fourth year. I was good friends with his spouse, so we would get together often to help the time pass and be a source of support while he was gone. One evening my friend said something that really struck me.
She told me that she was realizing that her husband wasn’t “just hers” anymore, and she had to learn how to share him more willingly. Her husband’s international rotation was in a very poor and underdeveloped area, and he experienced many heart-breaking situations while he was there. He was one of only two or three other medical professionals at the clinic. Even though he was still a medical student, the reality was that if he wasn’t there, some people would receive very limited care, or wouldn’t receive any care at all.
The stories from the clinic were hard to hear, but it highlighted something very important for my friend. As much as she would love for her husband to be at home with her, spending his time with her instead of with strangers across the world, she realized she couldn’t hold him to herself even though she missed him dearly. There were people in desperate need of his help. He wasn’t always “saving lives” but he was giving hope and helping people heal. Sometimes it was him doing actual procedures and tests, and other times it was as simple as him sitting with someone in pain and reassuring them that he cared about them and that they wouldn’t be forgotten. With her husband’s medical training and the skills he was developing, it’s almost like he wasn’t just him anymore—he was a doctor—and this meant that he now “belonged” to the community, to everyone.
Around the same time that I had this conversation with my friend, I happened upon an article by a medical spouse titled “Is There a Doctor In The Marriage?.” In it she talked about an experience she had with her husband when he was a resident. After a particularly grueling rotation, they were finally able to take a vacation to rest and reconnect. On the plane ride to their vacation destination, a fellow passenger had an emergency and was in need of medical care. Her husband was the only one on the plane who could help. Even though they wanted to rest and pull away from all the demands of medical life, when a situation like this developed, there was no hesitation. He helped because he could. For the first time, she saw her husband in action, helping this fellow human, and her perspective changed.
Most of us never get to see our partners in action, doing what they do all those hours they are away from us. During medical school, we may see them study for hours on end, but it’s hard to remember just how important it is in the greater scheme of things. If they’re doing rotations, they disappear in the mornings, we don’t hear from them for most of the day, and then they re-emerge at some point whether it’s 8, 12, or 16+ hours later. All we feel is their absence.
But if we were to actually see them in action, learning and honing their skills, preparing and starting to provide relief for multitudes of people, it would fill our hearts. We would feel proud. That amazing person over there working so hard to help others, that person is with me. Our desire to hold them tight would loosen a bit. We could see a greater perspective and find our own way to encourage them to continue on the arduous journey of medical school and then residency.
There is a saying that “Without health life is not life; it is only a state of languor and suffering – an image of death.” Although this may seem a bit extreme, we are now partners to people who through all this training, will be capable of restoring people’s health. That is an incredible gift to humanity. I’m sure we all can think of a time when we were sick and how it essentially stopped our lives – whether it was the common cold, a broken bone, or a life-threatening disease. We were so thankful to the medical professionals that were able to help us regain our health.
This ability to help others has a cost as a medical couple and that cost is time. In order for them to provide this service to our communities, they have to be away from us. It’s hard, but if we can find a way to make it work, even with this cost, it can be incredibly rewarding for both people involved.
So what are some ways to handle this cost? It’s a combination of things. First, set your expectations. Second, remember the bigger perspective of why your partner is away from you so much. Third, seek support and community from others going through what you’re going through. Fill your partner’s absence with a community that you can lean on to help you get through, especially on the hard days.
No matter what we do, we will miss our medical students. We will want them home spending their time with us, and of course we should. They are our chosen partner and a partnership exists when you are connecting and working together. It’s more of a perspective shift, or a reminder, when times are hard and you feel alone. If we could be flies on the wall and witness what they are doing and how they are helping, we may find more understanding and feel more peace with their absence.
About the Author
Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, blogger, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and two-year old daughter, with another daughter one the way, due in November. She enjoys helping other spouses navigate the world of medicine and actively participates in support groups and activities. Her husband is a first-year Family Medicine resident at UTMB Galveston and did his medical training at The Ohio State University.