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Doctor Dad: A Husband and Father of Three in Med School

How do you find a balance in medical school?

“There is no balance,” she said.

This was not what I wanted to hear. We were talking about remaining competitive in medical school without giving up a social life. This administrator is an MD and has a PhD in education; she knows what she’s saying. She explained how her eight-year-old gets a few hours after work, but then she often sacrifices sleep to stay on top of her professional to-do list.

I completely understand the demands of children. All three of mine expect their own bit of my attention, as well as participation in family time. Needless to say, the administrator was flabbergasted when I told her about my teenager, school-ager and toddler. This is not typical and the demand is immense but, with the right attitude and some perseverance, it is more than manageable. Three basic tenets guide me to successfully passing my classes without ignoring my children and abandoning their care to my wife.

After years of perfection, the 4.3 in high school and the 3.9 in undergrad, most medical students have spent years blowing the curve and displaying perfection in their work. This is the life we lead to make it to medical school. The Type A, perfection-seeking behavior is what makes us suitable to guard the health and safety of our patients. However, the old joke is not quite a joke after all; what do you call a med student that finishes at the bottom of his class? Doctor.

Many medical schools have a pass/fail grading system, with cutoffs for a passing grade as low as 60%. The average passing cutoff is in the range of 70%, which is a C in most places. I tell myself every day that the best thing I can do for my family at this point is to pass medical school, but the husband and father in me demand I do more than study all day and night. So, my first tenet is to give up on perfection. I’m speaking of academic perfection, since this is an absolutely arbitrary concept. I don’t accept merely passing my classes as acceptable, but I’m not a gunner, and I don’t kill myself over getting a 77% on an exam.

Of course, I want to do more than simply pass my classes. I want to learn something that will one day save or improve the quality of life for one of my patients; this takes a new level of time management. While timing was never one of my strong suits (after all, who would choose to have three children, each five years apart), time management has been a major key to my success. Each week I have 168 hours with which to do all that I need to take care of my family and pass my classes. With about 50 of those taken up by sleep, 14 for eating, and about 30 dedicated to my family, I don’t have much time for studying; using that time to its utmost is necessity.

At home, with your computer, and your TV, and your Playstation, and your friends, and… you get the picture. Removing distractions is a difficult task, but removing yourself from those distractions is easy. Attending lectures, instead of viewing them online at home, is a prime way to aid focus. If you’re like me, and you don’t live near campus, going to the local library on the weekends is always an option. To distill this point, treat school like a job. Use the time you’re on campus (you will actually need to go to campus) more effectively. Between classes, you should review material for the next class, or prepare questions about the class that just ended. Use lunch to read material or complete lab work (unless it’s anatomy lab, as I don’t condone skipping meals). When you get home, put work aside for a few hours to refresh yourself, and enjoy the time with you have with your family, because you can’t get these days back, and they’ll pass you by in a blink.

Finally, don’t overdo it. Get enough sleep, and make sure you’re eating healthily. In the long run, nutrition and sleep will go a long way. I spend about four hours every weeknight with my family: one hour cooking with my wife, one hour eating and asking my kids about their days, and two hours playing games with my daughters. Lunch is always packed the night before, as I’m the only one who will eat leftovers, and breakfast is an egg on toast, two oranges and some coffee. The kids all go to bed between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., so I spend about two more hours reading the text or reviewing information for tomorrow’s lectures; I wake up promptly at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for the day and to take my son to daycare on the way in to school. Only on very rare occasions do I feel that I didn’t get enough sleep. I’m constantly hearing about fellow students staying up late to study, but then sleeping in and missing lecture. This kind of circadian disruption cannot last for long. Also, I hear about them eating out all the time because it’s quick, or eating Chef Boyardee because it’s cheap. Their breakfast usually consists of coffee and a candy bar. They aren’t displaying any outward unhealthiness due to poor diet, but it must be there. We learn about the importance of proper diet and sleep, and we joke about not getting proper nutrition and sleep. I guess this is irony, or hypocrisy.

The average medical student is 23.5 years old; they are young and resilient and can stand to stay up late, miss lectures, eat poorly and they don’t generally have dependents. However, I’m not so young anymore and family is the most important thing in the world to me. Perfection to me is a balanced home-work life. Medical school is not the typical 8 to 5 p.m. job, but neither is medicine in general. Yet it is still a job that we all hope to enjoy doing.

So I refuse to make it stressful and all-consuming. My time is valuable and so is my health. I’m a firm believer is practicing what I preach. I used to smoke (emphasis on “used to”). I can tell patients I know just how hard it is to quit, and how absolutely possible it is. I try to run, and walk if I can’t run, at least every other day. I eat three meals a day and I sleep at least six hours a night. There is a balance. I’m not topping the grade reports, and I won’t make it into Alpha Omega Alpha, but everyone will call me doctor just the same.

Dan Gates Dan Gates (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Indiana University School of Medicine

I am the proud father of 3 wonderful children. The oldest two are girls, Devyn and Myra, and my son, Corbin, is the youngest. My wife, Heather, and I are both medical professionals. She recently finished her master's degree and is a pediatric nurse practitioner. I graduated from Center Grove High School in 2002, and immediately joined the US Army. After serving 5 years as a medic (2 tours to Iraq), I came home to study chemistry at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana with the goal of attending medical school at Indiana University School of Medicine. I'm currently in my final year, and I will match into Family Medicine this spring.