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By Patricia Yollin
"The journey through medical school is long and difficult. Fortunately, no student has to travel it alone," said Talmadge King, MD, in his welcome at the School of Medicine commencement on May 15 at Davies Symphony Hall.
The words of the school's new dean had special resonance for those members of the Class of 2016 who were graduating with a fellow classmate as a partner. This year, there was an unusually large number of couples among the 178 students.
King urged the graduates to be good listeners -- to seek first to understand and then to be understood. In that respect, the medical student couples have had a lot of practice, as they move forward in the next chapter of their shared lives.
Van Nguyen and Michael Perez developed a relationship early in medical school. Lifting her left hand to show her ring, Nguyen said they became engaged in November.
"It's an opal, not a diamond," Perez said, laughing. "Med school budget."
They met during the first week of school in a class on physical exam skills. Since they both grew up in Southern California, they decided to carpool down to visit their families for the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2012, they became a couple.
"When you're stuck in a car together for eight hours, you get to know each other pretty well," Perez said.
Given that they lived together and had many of the same classes, friends and occasionally rotations, it's fortunate that their relationship has worked out so well. "It would have been impossible to escape," said Nguyen, who noted that alphabetical order determines many things at UCSF and that their last names are not far apart.
Class of 2016 graduates Michael Perez and Van Nguyen.
Trying to match residencies as a couple was especially grueling. Amazingly, they both matched with their first choice: USC. Perez will specialize in emergency medicine, while Nguyen will focus on diagnostic radiology after a one-year surgery internship at UCLA's Harbor Medical Center.
Nguyen said. "Most of my classmates applied to 20 places. I applied to 45." Their list of possible combinations was 200 items long.
"It felt like we were experiencing everyone's emotions tenfold," Perez said. "It was definitely much more stressful than for people who weren't involved."
Asked if they ever felt competitive with each other, he said, "I did. Van generally scores better than me on tests. She has the book smarts. As far as what people got on tests, she was my barometer."
Nguyen, in turn, used Perez to "normalize relationships," to see if it was OK to respond a certain way after dealing with, say, a difficult patient, a challenging rotation or a hurtful encounter.
"One time I came into the room with my attending," Nguyen recalled. "The patient was on the phone, and he said, 'I have to go. The nurse and the doctor are here.' I was called the nurse pretty often. But I could express my frustrations to Michael."
On the other hand, being involved with another medical student can pose some unique challenges.
"You want to be there for the other person, but you're both tired and sometimes there's only enough time for one person to unload," Nguyen said. "It's hard if they also have something on their chest."
Perez added, "The key is being communicative: 'I have a story. Can I go first?' "
What advice would they offer to incoming students about getting involved with one of their classmates?
"Take the leap. Give it a try and be reasonable about your time commitment to each other and to school," Perez said.
Nguyen added, "Have the expectations talk before you enter into a relationship with another student."
Selfie time: Brooke Su takes a photo with fellow graduates Meredith Bock, John Paul Farala and Erik Velez.
Brooke Su never had to debate the pros and cons of a relationship with someone in her field. When she started school in 2011, she'd already been dating a UCSF med student for two years.
"I actually have no frame of reference for not dating another medical student," Su said. "He was three years ahead of me and it ended early in my second year."
By the end of that year, she and classmate Erik Velez were dating. They started living together in 2014 during a gap year in Boston, where he did research and Su got an MPH at Harvard. In January, he proposed on Angel Island, where they'd gone on one of their first dates. He'll be doing a general surgery internship at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles and then a radiology residency at USC. She'll be a resident in otolaryngology at UCLA. Their relationship has buoyed their journey through medical school.
"There are a lot of great perks," said Velez, 25, of Anaheim. "Our lives are very hectic and it's not necessarily the long hours -- it's the uncertainty of the hours."
Su, 27, who grew up mostly in San Jose, said it's been a huge benefit to be involved with "someone who knows the ridiculousness of being a third-year med student and the demands on your time and being able to share candidly your passion for patient care."
"I was stuck on a case in my surgery rotation that was supposed to take two hours and instead took eight," Su recalled. "I got home at 10:30 at night and I had to get up at 4. All I needed was some sugar and someone to rant to. And there was no, 'Where were you? We had plans.' It was just, 'I get it.' When I was at my limit studying for the boards, I told Erik, 'I can't handle human contact, even you. I need two or three days to preserve my sanity.' Someone else might not have handled it as well.”
Both Su and Velez said the drawbacks of dating another medical student come with the benefits: total immersion in the medical world. It can produce extraordinary understanding, but also lead to imbalance and a distorted sense of reality.
Su said, "It makes it harder to step out of this world of medicine. For one thing, there's no sense of what's appropriate dinnertime conversation. I've seen it all, I've smelled it all. We have to reel ourselves back sometimes."
As daunting as medical school has been, they know residency will be far tougher. "We just have to be self-aware," Su said. "Things will get harder and we'll be more sleep-deprived. It's really great we have each other as a resource."
Shalini Dixit recalled her first date with Kevin Kane. He took her to the Local Edition, a downtown upscale cocktail bar. The second date was at Gracias Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant, because she's a vegetarian.
"After that, most dates were studying and eating at home," Dixit said.
The 27-year-old Orinda native entered medical school in 2011, but graduated in the same class as Kane, who grew up in Riverside County, because she took a gap year. She'll be staying at UCSF for her residency, and he'll be heading down to Stanford University. Both will specialize in internal medicine.
"It's wonderful to date someone in med school," Dixit said. "There's unbelievable support. You really get to have a partner. We've gone through school together and applied for residencies together. It's nice to be starting a new chapter with someone."
That chapter will be challenging as Dixit will be moving to the Dogpatch neighborhood, close to her new base at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, while Kane will be in Redwood City.
"At least it's along the same freeway," said Kane, also 27, who expects to be seeing a lot of Interstate 280 in the next several years.
Although they both view their relationship as happily symbiotic, Kane said he benefited more, given that Dixit was farther along in medical school and offered plenty of useful advice.
"For example, she mentioned that grades during our third year are really important and have a very big impact on your residency application," he said. "Having that insight very early on really helped."
They value the empathy that comes with being involved with another med student.
"I'd feel a lot guiltier dating someone not in med school if I were gone all the time," Dixit said. "We've both learned to be more flexible. We’ve realized you have to do what you want and not wait for the other person."
Kane added: "There are a lot of unique stressors in medical school and little things other people wouldn't understand. We can vent and comfort each other in ways we couldn't otherwise. I did better because of Shalini and she did better because of me."