What I wish I knew in medical school about dating as a student

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

Their relationship has spanned continents and lasted through varying stages of medical training—not to mention his wife’s scholarly pursuits—but when it started, AMA member David Savage, MD, PhD, and his wife Elizabeth Frost were brought together by a shared interest.

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“This relationship wasn’t something that I think either of us were seeking. This just sort of happened to us. I had been out of a relationship for nearly a year when she and I met,” said Dr. Savage, now a medical oncology and hematology fellow at Scripps Health in San Diego, during an interview for the AMA’s “What I Wish I Knew in Medical School” series.

After meeting via an organization focused on refugee health that both were volunteering with, Dr. Savage and Frost navigated two demanding academic schedules while forming a life plan that accounted for their shared and individual goals.

That plan involved compromise—Frost worked for the Peace Corps in Rwanda while Dr. Savage was completing his final year of medical school at UT Health in Houston—and navigating a relationship in “a non-traditional way.” The two were engaged in 2017 and married during Dr. Savage’s residency training in 2019.

Four years into their marriage and expecting their first child, Dr. Savage reflected on the demands of balancing medical training and a relationship. He offered this advice for medical students who are pursuing a relationship or considering the merits of doing so.

“We met in the spring of 2013. At that point, I had already completed three years of medical school and I was in my first year of my PhD program. She was in the first year of her master's in public health program,” said Dr. Savage. “We both had a mutual interest in refugee health. I had spent almost a whole year up until then working with refugees and she had also reached out to the same organization that I was volunteering with. They introduced us.”

“We actually had corresponded back and forth by email, in a very just matter of fact way about the project. Toward the end of the academic year, she and I met at a global health conference in Houston that was at UT, and we just kind of hit it off and had a lot of mutual interests. About a month later [we] went on our first date,” he said. “It was really nice finding a person who just organically shared a lot of the same interests, and it was easy for us to kind of bond over that. So that was pretty nice.

“That's sometimes how a lot of medical students meet. They end up in the same places a lot, be it the study carrels or on clerkships, or in social parties that happen at the end of block rotations where they're interacting with the same people over and over again. And because of those mutual interests, they kind of hit it off in other ways and choose to start dating.”

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“If I were speaking to medical students, I guess I’d say the most important thing is just to find somebody who you enjoy and have a lot of common interests with, and somebody that you can really care for and who can also take care of you,” said Dr. Savage. “It doesn't matter what their intended specialty is or what yours is. And it doesn't really matter where you hope either of your careers will go in the future, as long as you're flexible.

“If you find the right person … the details of where your careers will go, where you'll ultimately land, what kind of careers you'll ultimately create for yourselves, those details will sort themselves out,” he said. “You don't really have to have a 10-year plan for every little detail of your life as long as you have the right partner for the journey.

“We've had lots of unclear moments in our process, and we've just had a lot of trust in each other and a lot of faith in each other that it will work out, and it ultimately has,” Dr. Savage added. “We've shown a lot of flexibility on both sides of the fence to make it work.”

“If you want to meet someone, be curious about other people, meet as many people and date as many people as you need to find the right person. And once you found him or her, you work together to figure out how to make all the subsequent steps work for your career and for your family life.”

When Dr. Savage and Frost met, he was about a year removed from another long-term relationship that began in medical school.

“The first time around, I met that person basically when I was on my summer break, and I had a lot of time,” he said. “It probably created the unrealistic expectation that I was going to be that available all the time.

“Then things at school got going again and we were dating partially when I was in my third-year clerkships, and a month would go by where we would talk on the phone but almost never see each other. We would have to delay dates by sometimes a couple weeks or a month,” Dr. Savage added. “After six months into clerkships, she just said, ‘I really respect and appreciate what you're doing, but I kind of need somebody who's a bit more available,’ and that's when we went our separate ways.”

“What I learned is it's just easier if you can give your partner a heads-up about what the next month or two months look like for you so that he or she knows what to expect,” he said. “When I was finishing graduate school, I was finishing my dissertation, I was working on my dissertation defense, and Elizabeth and I would have a lot of date nights where we would just go to the library and I would work on my writing and figures and data, and we do that together.

“Right now, my wife similarly is working on her proposal for her dissertation and she's going to do that defense in about a month. And so we've put a lot of things on the back burner so that I can support and encourage her, and we know that time with each other is going to be a little bit more limited for the next month, but then after that, things will get a little bit more back to normal.”

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“Elizabeth was also doing a dual degree, an MPH and a master's in social work, so her program took four years instead of the traditional two,” Dr. Savage said. “She ended up taking four years total and graduated two years before I finished. In that time, she applied to the Peace Corps and got accepted. We got engaged around Memorial Day weekend of 2017. And then a week and a half later, she left for training in Philadelphia and then ultimately Rwanda for a year while I got ready for my last year of med school.”

Being apart “was a growing experience because we just had to be really intentional about making time for each other, especially with the time difference. She had the technology to be able to call me through WhatsApp, but we had to do it either late at night or early in the morning so that we would kind of be at times when we were both awake,” he said. “I kind of had to plan my day around making time either in the morning or the evening, and she was doing the same.

“We had to find other creative ways to stay connected with each other. I would just buy random things that I knew she would enjoy, different snacks she liked or different things for her home that would make life more comfortable,” Dr. Savage added. “And I would pack these little care packages and send them to her.”

“No matter if it's across town or across the country or around the world, a good relationship takes just a lot of work and time investment the same way our medical careers do,” he said. “One mistake I see sometimes is couples trying to … overinvest in their medical training and say that's the top priority, but my experience is you really have to be just as intentional about your relationship and staying connected and making time for each other either virtually or in person as you do make time for patients and studying and all those things. So, to make it work, you just have to be balanced on both sides.”

“When my wife and I started dating, my family knew we had a great relationship, but I think they kind of expected that we would get engaged maybe after med school was over or after residency was over because my family was just hyper-focused on career development,” Dr. Savage said. “As I was going through school and I was seeing people around me getting engaged and married, and I was looking at our relationship thinking, this is great. This is the person I want to be with. Why would I wait anymore to commit to this? And so we got engaged and then it was hard to plan a wedding during residency, but we did it.”

“I knew some people who are really focused on their careers and getting to a certain residency, and they probably wouldn't have considered dating in med school because they would've said, ‘I just don't have time for that. I'll do that in the future. And that's just more time than I have to handle,’” he said. “I don't think one's bad or good. I think for some people, delaying a relationship till residency or fellowship is just the right choice for them at that time in their life. Whereas other people like me really have enjoyed having a partner along for the journey.”