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Married in Medical School: Our Experience

Medical school can be an overwhelming journey for many students as the pace, quantity of content, and work hours far exceeds even the most prepared students’ expectations. The overall demand of medical school makes having a “normal life” very challenging; that is, the ability to attend happy hours or frequent social events, see local professional teams play or cultivate hobbies all become difficult to orchestrate between the endless pages of reading or practice UWorld questions. In addition, it can be incredibly difficult to meet a significant other outside the medical school sphere, largely for lack of time and opportunity. All of these factors summated together can make medical school a challenging and sometimes isolating experience.

A few medical students have written about their experiences with medical school relationships that have been helpful for my spouse Lisa and I to learn from and apply to our own situation. In addition, Dr. Jauhar discusses in his New York Times article entitled Doctor Marries Doctor: Good Medicine, that marriages between doctors is becoming more and more common. He cites an Annuals of Internal Medicine study on over 1,000 marriages where both partners were physicians and found that the majority were happy, highly satisfied with their work and had greater participation in household maintenance and raising their children.

In this brief article, my wife and I want to share the story about how we met and what it has been like to be engaged and married during medical school. This will prelude our next article centered on the couples’ match, our approach to away rotations, the advice we have gotten thus far and our hopes and fears.

Our story is more or less a nerdy version of a Nicholas Spark’s novel. We met in college early in my junior year — Lisa’s sophomore year — at Marquette University while working in the same neuroscience research laboratory. We instantly hit it off; I mean, what better romantic setting is there than doing surgeries on tiny lab rats? I wore slippers on our first date to P.F. Chang’s and the rest is history.

As our time at Marquette passed, we both realized that medicine was the career path for us. Since I was a year ahead in school, I applied to medical school and interviewed first. This was the first major crossroads for Lisa and I. After lengthy discussions about the various programs and their pros and cons — you can bet Lisa made several such lists — we decided that I would attend Georgetown University School of Medicine, despite it being a thousand miles away from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The plan was for Lisa to apply the following year and hopefully be accepted.

The first year apart was brutal. I don’t think we truly understood what we had gotten ourselves into. However, our love endured the long year and as we had planned Lisa was accepted into medical school at Georgetown that spring. As our life together continued to take shape, I proposed to her outside the beautiful chapel in the middle of Marquette’s campus on the eve of her graduation from Marquette University.

We married after my second year — Lisa’s first year — just a few short days after tackling the daunting task of the USMLE Step 1 — which proved to be the best thing that ever happened to us not just on a personal level but professionally. Our friends would always ask us, “What do you mean you are staying in this weekend?” It has been hard to watch our non-medical friends and family accept high-paying, quality jobs right out of college and enjoy a great social lifestyle, while we are struggling on weekend nights just to understand the brachial plexus. However having a mutual appreciation of this has helped us weather the storm. It’s not only the understanding, but also the company we share, in silent hours spent next to each other on the couch studying or quizzing each other the night before a big exam.

I think at some point during medical school everyone finds their group of friends to help share in the experience, to study with, to get dinner with at midnight after a long night at the library and so on. To have my main companion in this endeavor as my wife — and vice versa for Lisa — I think has only drawn us closer together and motivated us even more to keep plugging forward to help reach the ultimate goal of becoming physicians.

Given our one year difference in school, we decided that I would do a research fellowship between third and fourth year so that we would be in the same fourth-year class. This was a decision we both put a lot of thought into. The way we both saw it, we would be apart for a year regardless unless I matched in Washington, D.C. If I did take the research year, I would have a more flexible schedule than a third-year student and even a fourth-year student — at least for the first six to seven months of the year — so I could fly back to D.C. to see Lisa if my research program was outside the greater D.C. area.

We believed this approach would allow us to see each other more often given how busy Lisa would be as a fourth-year facing sub-internships, interview season, and tying up required clerkships. However, the real deciding factor we discussed that made the research year so attractive was the thought of choosing where we start the next chapter of our careers. Doing this together, as opposed to me matching into a program and putting the immense pressure on Lisa to not only get into a program in that city, but get into a program that is a good fit for her. To us, the sacrifice of me taking this research year and living apart yet again for a year was worth it. The best research fellowship opportunity for me, an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, was in Chicago at Rush.

It is difficult to think long-term when you are young and in love. To those fellow students out there facing similar situations, even if not considering a research year but perhaps a one-year master’s degree or other venture so as to sync up into the same class as your significant other, let us tell you that it can be done. While the immediate future might be incredibly difficult if you are forced to live apart for a year, the reward of empowerment to choose where you will start your next journey makes it all worth it. If and when you have doubts and questions, reach out to your friends, colleagues and professors at school. Lisa and I asked for opinions from pretty much everyone we know on the matter. We found it incredibly helpful, as different people have unique perspectives depending on their relationship to you (professional relationship, long-time friend, family member, etc.) or their own life experiences. We were able to aggregate the various professional and personal advice together to come up with the best decision for us. The best decision is something that will be different for everyone, but certainly reaching out to those closest to you and your professional mentors is never a bad idea.

This year has not come without significant challenges, including only seeing each other every four to six weeks. However, this move allows us to hopefully achieve our ultimate end goal of matching into our desired specialties in the same city. In our next article, we will discuss our thoughts and plans for away rotations and the couple’s match, as well as discuss the various advice we have received from deans within our medical school regarding how to approach this process.

Lisa Cotter Lisa Cotter (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

The Georgetown University School of Medicine

Lisa Cotter is an aspiring physician currently pursuing her Medical Degree at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Prior to her enrollment at Georgetown, Lisa attended Marquette University where she graduated in May, 2014, Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Biomedical Sciences. Lisa is dedicated to her studies but also enjoys running, lifting, and yoga to stay healthy and balanced. In addition, she has a passion for the fine arts and enjoys painting, drawing, photography, and culinary arts. As the former president of the largest student group on campus at Marquette, the Biomedical Sciences Student Association, and current Director of the Georgetown Student Mentorship Program, Lisa is devoted to service and leadership. She is continuing to demonstrate these qualities as she advances in her career at Georgetown.

Eric Cotter (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

The Georgetown University School of Medicine

Eric is from a small town in northern Wisconsin called De Pere and attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI for his undergraduate studies. He is currently in between his 3rd and 4th years of medical school at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC pursuing a research fellowship in orthopaedic surgery. His fellowship is at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush in Chicago, IL under the mentorship of Dr. Brian J. Cole MD, MBA. As an aspiring orthopaedic surgeon, Eric is devoted to making impactful changes in patient care through research. He has presented his research at several national conferences including the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' Annual Meeting.