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Dating Dramas

The New Physician October 2000
If Ally McBeal has difficulty with dating in her lawyer world, imagine what it would be like if she were a medical student.

So here’s the scenario: I’m sitting in the library at a high-profile university that also has a high-profile teaching hospital. I don’t do this often. I am old. Which, for the purposes of this story, means I’m 27. I’m minding my own business, tending to my lesson plans for an upcoming high-school class I’m teaching on journalism. It is a Sunday afternoon. There’s no one else sitting at my four-person table, no one else sitting within 20 feet of me. I have papers strewn everywhere. I have placed a Diet Dr. Pepper bottle to the right of my notepad, which, I presume, will effectively mark my working territory if the mess that I have created does not already do so. I get up to walk to a computer. I’m gone five minutes—no, more like three. And when I return, there he is.

The space-impeder.

He has forsaken all the time-tested rules of personal space at the library—unless they have changed in the five years since I left college—and he has plopped himself right down in the chair to the left of mine. Not across from me. Next to me. And in front of him, he has more pages with words that end in o-l-o-g-y than Webster’s. There are six superior textbooks of such heft and size that the state of Texas would be impressed. Here is Harcourt; there, Brace and Jovanovich. There are practice tests. And there are No. 2 pencils.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a medical student.

“Oh, sorry,” he says innocently. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your space.”

“Oh, that’s OK,” I say, when what I’m really thinking is, Why did you, then?

But it’s fine. We have a lovely conversation. I know far too much about him by the time my business is finished an hour later. Later in the week, I find out why. He is on an advanced personal relationship schedule, you see, because he is about to take Step I and about to start Year Three, which must be capitalized to underscore the fact that Time As We Know It will be altered soon. Clinical rotations. In no time, based upon the fact, it seems, that we both enjoy reading The Onion online, he tells me he believes we just might spend the rest of our lives together. Or maybe not. Either way, I must have patience. “Patience, please. I am a medical student.”

Well, skip to the end of the story. We will not be picking out china patterns anytime soon. But I found it interesting, this advanced time continuum he held, this desire to have all the answers, know all the possible peccadilloes, to write a prescription for success before a diagnosis of mutual attraction had even been settled upon. And so I wondered: Do medical students have a different dating style? And the answer is: yes, sort of.

“Dating is almost a necessary part of medical school,” says American Medical Student Association (AMSA) president Dr. Sindhu Srinivas. “Dating helps you get through it. To have someone who is a mutual support—that’s just critical.”

This much is almost universally agreed upon by medical students, and indeed, who can argue with the value of a relationship in adding joy to what is invariably a pressure-cooker time? But, as was the problem with my friend at the library, medical students say it’s difficult to separate who they are from what they do, and that includes dating.

Among the biggest quandaries students consider is exactly who to date. Not a question of basics—blond, brunette, tall, short—but of whether a significant other should also be wearing a stethoscope. For some, the thought of spending every waking hour attached to medicine, even when outside the classroom or clinic, is as appealing as the smell of formaldehyde in a cadaver lab.

“I personally would not want to date anyone in my program,” says Eric Hodgson, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Maryland. “I don’t like to mix relationships with medical school. I’d like to have a separation between the two. But a lot of that depends on your perspective. I’ve found that students who go straight from college to medical school view it as a continuation of their education. I took three years off and worked before I started medical school, and I see being a student like I’m going to work every day. And I wouldn’t want to date anyone I work with.”

Dr. Dave Grande, a first-year resident at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees that there is no right or wrong answer to dating within the medical school community, though he, too, once thought it was a terrible idea.

“For a while I never thought I’d date anyone in medical school,” Grande says. “I thought it would just overwhelm your life, just take up every second, to be around someone who was in medicine, too.”

In his final year of medical school at Ohio State University College of Medicine, however, Grande changed his mind. “As I became more interested in issues around my profession, and in certain causes and values associated with it, that’s when I realized that I can’t just leave it behind at the end of the day.”

He met Srinivas, who was then in her last year at UMDNJ–New Jersey Medical School, through AMSA, and “we discovered we had a lot of shared goals and values in life,” he says. “We had common visions, and that made the idea of being in a relationship with someone of the same profession very rewarding. Sindhu and I have become sort of each other’s consultant, confidantes for what we both believe, whereas it wouldn’t be that way with someone on the outside.”

Of course, the relationship is not without its struggles. Grande is a three-hour drive from Washington, D.C., where Srinivas serves as AMSA’s national president. She’ll apply for the Match in 2001.

“Hopefully,” says Grande, “next year we’ll be in the same city.”

While the situation may not be ideal, Srinivas says she has many friends who view the long-distance relationship as an optimal one when you’re in medical school.

“There are situations where one person will be in a long-distance relationship with someone who is not in med school, and they say it’s nice to get away and visit for a weekend, because you have the freedom to enjoy each other’s company when all the stress is too far away to touch.”

And that stress can be all consuming in a relationship, whether you are next door or in the next time zone.

“One of the hardest things about dating another medical student is making mental time for things that aren’t medicine-related,” Srinivas says. “When Dave was [AMSA] president and I was in school, we had to make a conscious effort not to talk about medicine. In many ways, it’s a natural thing, regardless of profession. You want to talk about each other’s day.

“But,” she adds with a laugh, “it’s also kind of annoying after a while.”

Even when you’ve set the medical world outside your dating parameters, however, maintaining a relationship while in medical school is no enviable task. Many students find themselves prioritizing people the same way they prioritize their studies. And very often, the studies win.

“This is a situation where you have a lot of type-A personalities,” says Srinivas, “people who are used to succeeding, who have very focused efforts on their studies. And I’ve seen a lot of relationships suffer because of that.”

Hodgson knows that fact all too well. He dated an economics professor for two-and-a-half years and was happy with the relationship, pleased to be grounded in something that had nothing to do with medicine. Little did he know that medicine, in fact, was having everything to do with why it was unraveling before he could notice.

“I thought my partner would be working on the relationship, even when I was too busy to,” Hodgson says. “There’s not a lot of emotional time to divide among a lot of people. I have my family, and I keep in contact regularly with a few close friends, but other than that, it becomes hard. You have to be with someone who is very understanding. There is a huge time commitment, especially during the third year, and not much time to devote to nurturing a relationship. It’s why mine didn’t work out.”

When the rare opportunity for free time does appear, “you have a long list of things you want to do in a short span of time, things you neglect otherwise,” Srinivas says. “I have a friend who’s been dating the same guy all through school. She wants to spend all her time away from medicine with him; he wants to spend it with the boys.”

It’s a highly concentrated version of the primordial story partners always battle, of course, and one that isn’t resolved easily. Lauren Ramers, the daughter of a small-town family practitioner, couldn’t believe the irony when her “smart but slacking” boyfriend, Christian, decided to enter medical school. They were married just before he began his medical studies at the University of California, San Diego, and she says she was prepared for the worst year possible. One of the ways she helped him cope was to give him space.

“There are times when Christian wants to hang out with friends or other people during his free time, and I know that he feels like he should spend his free time with me,” she says. “I try to create opportunities for him to have alone time. I go to L.A. to see friends. I went away with my mom for spring break. I’m not always around because I have a busy work schedule, and so when he wants to do things, he has that freedom. I always try to encourage him to pursue his own individual interests—drumming classes, hanging out with the guys, etc.”

Ramers also provided support by leaving little cards and notes with motivational messages to get him through the day. And the physical part of their relationship, when possible, was key, she says. “Christian would say regular sex helped ease the stress,” she says. “I don’t mean to be crude, but it’s true.”

But for every committed relationship of a medical student, there are those students who recognized early on that dating for dating’s sake—dating as a necessary function of medical school—means they can take a pass on serious emotional involvement. Srinivas points to a classmate, for example, who has dated six different men in her medical school class—so far—“and she admits that she dates just because she wants that support, that she wants someone and not necessarily that person.”

Many medical students wouldn’t blame this woman, however. They know how difficult it is to meet new people while juggling pathology tomes and pediatric rounds. Often, the sole consideration in the weekend date is simple proximity. “The pool isn’t so big in medical school classes,” Srinivas says. “So you can end up dating people who have dated three or four of your close friends, too.”

For Hodgson, who is gay, the challenges to meet a compatible mate are more insuperable. “There are not a lot of environments to meet people when you have so little time and don’t want to hang out in bars,” he says. “For me, the Internet works as well as anything else.”

And because medical students have so few windows of opportunity to devote to their personal lives, often relationships move more quickly, developing over those short periods of down time. It’s an approach that Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and education at Yale University who studies love and relationships, calls a “cookbook” story of love—a scripted way of thinking about how a relationship should or must evolve. Sternberg’s research holds that relationships are borne from and often fail because of the kinds of stories we fashion for ourselves, the way each of us views our role in a relationship. For the student who is happy jumping from partner to partner without emotional attachment, the story is one of objectification. “In all these [object] stories, the partner is valued not for himself or herself but for the role the partner plays,” Sternberg says.

Still other medical students may view their relationship with a non-student as a business partnership, according to Sternberg, particularly if he or she is helping foot the academic bill.

When students like Srinivas and Grande do click, even their futures must also be calculated to fit into the physician’s time frame. “A lot of people in medical school end up in a strange situation when they apply for residency, because they have to make a decision about whether the relationship is serious enough to arrange the residency based on it. People make that decision by their fourth year, and the net result is a lot of weddings,” Grande says, laughing.

Ramers, who met her husband six years before they married, cautions that medical students should understand that their partners may bear the brunt of their high-expectation environment in very personal ways as well. Although she has a master’s herself and has received her own professional recognition as a teacher, she says she went through a period when she felt “less smart” than Christian. “He was doing so well in school, was published in [the Journal of the American Medical Association], and I started to feel overshadowed by his success.”

It was a fear she’d seen happen while growing up, when her mother, a nurse who quit working to take care of her family, felt the same way. But the Ramers resolved the problem by doing what she says is the true secret to dating or living with a medical student—they talked.

“Communication is the key,” she says. “You can have love and passion and admiration and attraction, but without solid, honest, real and frequent communication, you can lose a beautiful relationship.”
Elizabeth A. McNichol is a contributing editor to The New Physician and a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.