“The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” ― Hippocrates
It’s been almost 10 years, but she finally did it - my wife finished medical school and residency.
To give a little background, my wife and I got married almost 10 years ago. Immediately after our honeymoon, she started her 1st year at UCLA Medical School while I entered my 2nd year of seminary.
As a seminarian, my fellow pastor friends would joke around with me about how smart I was to marry a doctor to-be. While I understood (and thanked God for) their sentiment, I don’t think anyone quite knows how brutal the journey really was.
In this post, I detail 2 realities I experienced and observed as the spouse of someone pursuing a medical career.
Reality 1: The Medical Pursuit is Relentless
If you’re unsure how someone becomes a medical doctor, here’s a general picture:
College: A pre-med student fights for good grades, impressive research projects, volunteering, publications, and a solid Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score in order to get accepted into medical school. The MCATS require 2-3 months of full time study (which is ironically when I first asked her out).
Medical School: The med student participates in a 4 year fire-hydrant learning environment. Think a semester’s worth of science material being taught per week. Beginning in the third year, the med student begins clinical rotations (surgery, internal medicine, pediatric, OBGYN, etc.) working at the hospital while studying for monthly exams at the same time. This is not including the other multiple standardized exams (“boards”) along the way, each of which, require months of study. Not to mention the research projects, volunteering, and leadership required for residency applications.
Remember, medical school is not the final destination for these students. There is still one more step.
Residency: So this is where things get crazy. Residency is the time where individuals receive hands-on training. The goal of residency is to move the medical student who knows the theories of medicine, to a independent practitioner of medicine who knows how to apply the science to actual patients.
But this is accomplished through a highly intensive schedule over which residents have no control.
Depending on the specialty, residency can range from 3-7 years, with working hours anywhere from 60-100 hours a week. They have “call” (24-30 hour shifts). Yes, there would be shifts where my wife would work 24 hours straight in the operating room taking care of critically ill patients. Multiple calls can also be scheduled in a given week. Did I also mention that residents have no control over their schedules?
All this while they have to work on research projects on the side, read updated scientific journals, prepare presentations, and study for board exams.
“But at least they get paid right?” Yes, but below minimum wage if you do the hourly calculations. (Residents are only required to have 4 days off per month)
So imagine the kind of toll this would have on a person (especially a petite Korean girl like my wife).
According to a study as recent as 2015, nearly 1 in 3 residents is clinically depressed. In another article, a physician recounts, “Residency’s long hours, trauma, sleeplessness and social isolation inevitably erode our healthy coping mechanisms. At the same time, there is a powerful culture of fear, stigma and lack of self-care that prevents residents from seeking help.“
How my wife managed to navigate these challenges, give birth to 3 children along the way (1 in med school, 2 during residency) while being married to a full time pastor confounds me.
There were some really challenging moments along the way. There were times when I can say I’ve never seen another human being more exhausted and pushed to the limit. I considered stepping down from ministry on a few occasions.
As a family, it took away the one thing I think all families need to flourish: margins.
We had little margin for real rest and relationship building. Life was about running on the treadmill of survival. Routine responsibilities, such as taking the kids out for a haircut or getting an oil change became heightened because of our lack of time or energy. Friendships suffered, not because we didn’t have great friends, but because we were so unavailable.
Let’s just say we’re thankful residency is over.
Reality 2: The Medical Pursuit is Rewarding
As rigorous as things were, there were reasons for why it was worth it:
1. Empowered Woman Stepping Into Her God-Given Abilities
My wife knew she wanted to be a doctor since she was 6 years old. She has always had the drive, the intellectual capacity, and the opportunities to further her growth.
Church leaders and pastors will sometimes talk about God’s people “living with a Kingdom vision” by leveraging the talents God has given to them for the world. But I don’t know if this is always communicated well to women or done so in a way that evokes support from their Christian husbands.
I’m not saying husbands simply exist for their wives’ vocational purposes (and the same should be said the other way around) or that a women’s most important calling is vocational. But I am saying that I deeply appreciate that there is a vocational sphere where my wife can exercise her wiring because she’s so great at it.
What would it look like if Christian husbands said to their wives, “Let’s formulate a vision for how God might use you for the Kingdom”? I wonder how empowering that might be for a Christian woman. I feel like I was given the privileged opportunity to walk alongside my wife in this journey for the last 10 years.
2. A Christian Witness in the Medical World
People at the hospital know my wife is a Christian.
It’s hard to avoid the subject any time someone asks, “So what does your husband do?” She interacts with patients, nurses, surgeons, residents, and administrators. And due to the nature of the job, they can’t avoid her. She sits, smack in the middle of her hospital, as salt and light.
I remember a time during residency when my wife got to share about the Christian faith with two other residents. Towards the end of the conversation, she recommended Tim Keller’s “A Reason for God.” The next time she saw the resident, the resident shared how he had purchased the book.
On other occasions, residents have attended our church because of a simple invitation she gave.
I think doctors have the potential to be some of the greatest Christian witnesses because they’re generally trusted as intellectuals who work hard and contribute to the welfare of society.
3. True Passions Becoming Clear
Before we got married, my wife used to tell me how she wanted to be a great mother.
You would think the rigorous medical pursuit would’ve proven her desires empty, but it has actually proven her desires to be true.
After she gave birth to our 1st, she took a year off from medical school to care for him. Throughout residency, I watched my wife give her best energies to the kids the moment she came home. After 24 hour shifts, she would intentionally engage by taking them to the park and reading stories to them.
Even as a pastor’s wife, she gave me an incredible gift during her medical pursuit - she let me do what I had to in church ministry as difficult as it was for her.
One of our closest friends asked me one night, “Steve, do you feel like your wife is sinning against you by not being ‘homeward oriented’?”
I responded, “Not one single time.”
I explained how her heart for me and the kids was so evident every single day. She never made me feel like she didn’t care about me and the kids. If anything, the rigors of the medical pursuit revealed how much she really supported me and what an amazing mom she really was.
Like I said, we’re really thankful residency is over.
Here are a few concluding encouragements:
1. Be gracious to those in your church pursuing medicine.
If they’re not at church, it’s not because they don’t want to be. It’s because they’re working or recovering from an exhausting overnight call.
If they seem cynical, it’s because they’re being pushed to the limit. There is just less bandwidth available for those pursuing medicine. We have to be understanding.
2. Take the time to reach out to residents even though they’re busy.
I know the mindset can sometimes be, “I’m not going to reach out to them because they’re so busy.” It’s understandable but it’s the wrong mindset.
A simple text or inviting them to a lunch you know they can’t go to will go a long way for their morale.
3. Have a long-view of their pursuit
Be slow to critique their unavailability now and see the potential impact they can make later. Sure, they may not be able to go on missions now, but they may lead the medical missions team later.
Be a cheerleader. Root for them. Pray for them.
I’m so thankful to God who sustained us for the last 10 years.
But thank God it’s over!