It was 10 p.m. on a chilly autumn night when Sara Whyte finally got home after a long day at the University of Georgia’s Health Science Campus.
She parked her grey sedan, switched off the ignition and the headlights. Then she leaned back in the driver’s seat, closed her eyes, and felt a wave of pain and exhaustion flood every cell.
“Can I keep on doing this?” she remembers asking herself, feeling near a total meltdown.
She sat there for five minutes before gathering her things and heading for the house, wrapping her sweater around her against the stiff wind.
When she stepped on the porch she heard the tinkle of the wind chimes her husband had brought her from China.
Watching the motion made her smile.
“Yes, maybe I can,” she said to herself.
Whyte, 30, decided about a year ago to go back to school and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. Now she is a first-year student at the GHSU-UGA Medical Partnership.
Three years into their marriage, Sara and Seth Whyte and their two cats moved south from Canada, her husband’s home, to begin their new life in Athens.
The seriousness of this decision is hitting her now.
“Med school is tough. I feel so stressed because I’m older and I’ve been off campus for several years,” said Whyte. “I am consistently getting tired and sick because of the heavy workload.”
Whyte graduated from Georgia Tech in 2006, but the workload was nothing like what she faces now.
She gets up at 6:30 every morning, fills her day with classes, quizzes and tests, then studies on campus until nightfall. When she returns home, two or three more hours of studying await.
“The only time I can rest is Saturday night, which makes me feel so guilty,” said Whyte. “I feel like I take advantage of my husband; he’s there for me and supports me through my dream but I’m never home.”
The four-year commitment to medical school has put pressure on Seth Whyte as well as Sara.
“It is true that we’ve lost so much time together compared to the year we lived in Canada,” said Seth Whyte. “I sort of miss those days when we took a walk under the sky full of beautiful stars.”
As Sara struggles with school, Seth struggles with loss of routine and a new job. Trained for a career in the hospitality industry, he loved the six years he spent working at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Whistler in British Columbia.
Now he drives to a part-time job at Highland Hardware in Atlanta, where his hours aren’t always the same and his earnings aren’t a big contribution to household finances.
“Being away from my country and from my support network is already bothering me,” he said. “Now I have the feeling that I can’t really settle down until I have a fixed schedule.”
Faced with limited time and a tight financial situation, Sara and Seth realize that marriage during medical school is much tougher than they originally thought. The recent separation of a couple they are friends with, both physicians, brought this home even more.
“It’s shocking, you know,” said Sarah. “The last time I saw them they were happy together. I really hope they get through this and figure things out.”
The fact is that rates of separation and divorce are higher among medical students and physicians than other groups. A 1997 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that more than 50 percent of all first marriages involving medical specialists and subspecialists end in divorce, compared with 40 percent for other groups.
“I’m not surprised about those figures,” said Sara Whyte. “People say medical school ruins marriage, especially during residency. You have to work on wards 16 hours a day, with only one day off a week. You may have your passion with your patients, not your family.”
Seth Whyte’s line of work also brings some risk: hospitality workers rank among the top ten professions with high rates of divorce, according to a 2010 report.
Pessimistic studies don’t scare Sara because she sees successful marriages among medical school professors. Laurel Murrow and her husband, John Murrow, both teach at the Medical Partnership.
They’ve been married for 8 years and have three daughters.
Laurel Murrow, an intenist and assistant professor, says that two periods were difficult: when the couple was separated for three years when she was in med school, and later when the three girls were younger. ”But it is so important to have someone so supportive,” Murrow said, as her husband has been. This makes marriage and work possible.
Looking ahead, Sara and Seth believe they can manage their marriage well, as the Murrows have done.
“We understand each other,” said Sara. “Every time I feel I’m stressed out, he makes me some tea, sits down and holds me for a while. Sometimes he takes me out for a walk just like we were in Canada. And he’s very easy to talk with. Talking is so important for marriage.”
Seth Whyte is confident that if things begin to go off track, they will try their best to work it out. “I will definitely do marriage counseling, and try everything to learn how to maintain the relationship,” said Seth. “I won’t give up. And I know both of us won’t.”