Med students in love — what it’s really like (video)

Justin Brooten, a second-year med student at the GHSU-UGA Medical Partnership, and his wife, Amy, a graduate student in counseling, take time to have moments of togetherness.
Justin Brooten, a second-year med student at the GHSU-UGA Medical Partnership, and his wife, Amy, a graduate student in counseling, take time to have moments of togetherness.

In the fall of 1968, Barbara and Richard, then freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, caught each other’s eye in their second week of biology class. Four years later, the two pre-med students married, and they have been together ever since.

The story of Dr. Barbara Schuster and Dr. Richard Schuster is what dreams are made of: Two intelligent, good-looking people fall in love, get married and become successful physicians.

But Barbara, now the campus dean for the GHSU-UGA Medical Partnership in Athens, says the relationship had a few bumps. It required a lot of patience and even more compromise, she says.

Their first compromise was going to med school at different times. Richard went first, and Barbara, teaching high school science at the time, applied to the same medical school a year later.

They decided to take on the demands of medical school at different times so “that we could have time to get our marriage going and become more independent from our parents,” says Richard, now a professor at the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia.

Ultimately, their plan worked. Now — nearly 40 years later — their story continues, but with a twist. Instead of being college kids balancing schoolwork with their time together, they’re teaching young people who often face the same balancing act.

For each of the medical students at the Georgia Health Sciences University (GHSU) – UGA Medical Partnership, the ultimate goal is becoming a good doctor. But as any good doctor will tell you, finding balance in life is also important.

Even under the best circumstances, being in a relationship is difficult and demanding. And being in a relationship with a med student? Well, that’s even tougher, with the constant studying and sleep deprivation.


Time together is at a premium

Maggie Kent, a first-year medical student at the partnership, and boyfriend Dylan Lovin, a second-year med student, are today’s version of the younger Schusters. The two met in January 2009 in a laboratory at the UGA College of Pharmacy, where both were undergraduates studying how certain drugs affect different types of cancer.

It’s a “nerdy introduction,” says Lovin, but it’s one that he and his girlfriend believe “makes perfect sense.” Like the Schusters, the young couple agree that compromise, patience and time management are key factors to sustaining a healthy relationship as full-time med students.

“Sometimes it’s not fun to not sleep and stay up all night studying for a test,” says Kent, “but knowing that’s what he’s doing, too, and understands, is nice.”

Lovin says sharing the same grueling schedule has actually helped their relationship. “I think commiseration has brought us closer together,” he says.

But above all, Lovin says, his most important role as a second-year med student is to mentor his girlfriend through her difficult first year.

“I feel like it’s my obligation to fulfill the role as both someone to support her and someone to give her advice, because this is the exact same thing I had to deal with last year,” Lovin says.

Of course, sometimes future doctors find love beyond the walls of medical school. That’s the case with the Brootens.

“I like us having different interests because there is always something to talk about,” says Amy Brooten, a graduate student in counseling. She has been married to Justin Brooten, a second-year medical student, for three years.

She adds that “I have learned so much about the body since Justin started school. I’m not a big science person, but it is really interesting.”

Time management can be a pitfall for romantic partners when one or both is in medical school. The Brootens have come up with an unorthodox way to create a few moments of togetherness. Because her husband loses himself completely in studying, Amy makes him set a timer on his phone so that “he’ll remember to look up and say ‘hi’ every once in a while.”

As silly as that may sound, Justin says, it’s just one example of how “you’ve got to get creative and show that you care” when you’re a medical student in a committed relationship.

“Communication and organization are so important so we can stay connected and close together emotionally,” said Amy. “If we don’t, that’s when I start to feel like, ‘Who are you? Are you my husband?’ ”

Justin works to keep things in perspective. “I’m married to my wife; I’m not married to the medical school,” he says.

Understanding and commitment

Second-year med student Paul Baker says having common interests has helped his relationship with his boyfriend of six months, Max Futral. Baker says that because Futral is studying to be a paramedic, he has an “understanding of the time commitments that face health care providers.” Baker says their relationship works better than others he has been in, where his partner didn’t understand the demands of medical careers.

Med students and the people who love them say time management is essential for maintaining a successful relationship.

Chris Wilson, whose girlfriend, Anna Bunker, is in her second year of med school, complains that he rarely sees her, even though they live together.

“It’s important to be intentional,’’ Bunker says. “You think if you just get done with this part, ‘then I’ll have more free time.’ But that’s not the case. You have to make the choice to stop even though you aren’t finished, and intentionally spend time together.”

People who are in relationships with medical students also have their own lives to lead, of course, which means stresses and frustrations that follow them home at night.

“When you all do have time, take advantage of it,” says Wilson, who has been with Bunker for more than three years.

“I’m glad . . . [Bunker and her classmates] spend as much time studying as they do, because it’s going to make them better doctors,” Wilson adds. “If I saw a bunch of medical students not studying, I would be concerned.”

Robyn Abree is a second-year master’s student studying health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. She’s mainly interested in covering nutrition, fitness, and other forms of prevention and recently worked at GivingPoint, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that educates youth about health and public service.

Jessika Boedeker is a graduate student at the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia pursuing health and medical journalism. She is especially interested in the evolving role of social media in health communication.