Navigating the minefield of medical speak in your relationship

An excerpt from Love in the time of medical school: Build a happy, healthy relationship with a medical student.

My dad is the oldest of four boys and my grandfather was an anesthe­siologist for many years. Apparently, the women who wanted to marry into the family all had to pass the “test” of listening to my grandfather tell gory surgery stories over dinner. My mother tells me about one particular dinner with my grandparents that simultaneously involved hearing a story about in­testines coming out of the body and being served spaghetti for dinner.

While my mother passed that test, I assuredly would have failed it. In our home, we have a rule called simply No Yucky Stuff. Graphic stories gross me out and occasionally make me feel woozy. You will need to navigate how much you want to hear about medical school, how much jargon you want to learn, and what kinds of stories you prefer to hear. Like other challenges in medical school, address your partner with kindness and support. Use “I” statements that focus on what you want and do not want to hear, rather than focusing on what they do or do not tell you. That way, they will continue to feel that you care about their journey, even if you can only tolerate hearing about certain aspects of it.

You may also start to spend time with your partner’s medical school friends. It can be a wonderful experience and make you feel like you are a part of your partner’s community. As one significant other said, “Being surrounded by community gives me access.” Inclusion and connectedness may increase the closeness between you and your partner.

That said, being surrounded by medical students can also lead you to feel isolated, frustrated, bored, and dumb. There were definitely times when I wanted to yell “ENOUGH ALREADY! Can we talk about ANYTHING else, please? Movies, books, politics, religion, farting (no … that would just lead to discussions about farting mechanisms … yes, I have experienced this). If you are already frustrated with the role of medicine and conversations about medicine in your life, being around other medical students may amplify your frustration.

Being around medical students also reopens the conversation about jargon. I noticed, and many significant others mentioned to me how dumb an outsider can feel when sitting with a group of med students. One said, “It is hard being somebody not scientifically minded to get used to being on the outside of the conversation.” Another said, “It is sort of a reality to embrace — you are going to feel stupid sometimes. You are going to feel on the outs with the technical stuff.” Still another significant other recalled a dinner with friends this way: “They are sitting there talking about this doctor, this rotation, this one they had to do an LP on, but the CT was showing this. Like, I have no idea what is happening, and I cannot contribute at all.” These conversations isolate all non-medical students and force them to either sit quietly or ask, sometimes over and over, “What does that mean?” “What are you talking about?”

When you encounter medical conversations, try to remember that not understanding medical jargon does not indicate a lack of intelligence. If you sat in a room with French speakers and do not speak French, you would be just as confused. Second, remember that everything they say they learned recently, perhaps even yesterday. Medical students do not inherently understand this stuff. If they did, they would probably not have to study for so many hours.

You will frequently be put in the position of deciding whether to say something while you sit at a table full of medical students. On the one hand, it is fair to expect a group of people sharing one course of study to discuss it. On the other hand, I believe that those professions with jargon (be it technical jargon, business jargon, legal jargon, or scientific jargon) must be aware of their audience and the fact that some will not understand the words they use. The issue of yucky stuff will also arise in social situations involving multiple medical students. I cannot tell you how many times I have stopped a conversation in its tracks because somebody was telling a disgusting story.

So what can you do if you find yourself frequently addressing incessant medical conversation, too much jargon, and yucky stuff? First, have a conversation with your partner before the next gathering. Explain your feelings of isolation and frustration. As always, make it about how you feel, not what they say. Tell them how much you want to be a part of their social circle and that you would appreciate their help steering the conversation away from technical medical talk and intervening when that does not work. When you are with the group and find the conversation straying too often to unfamiliar, graphic, or technical conversations, ask a question that nudges the conversation in another direction. If subtlety fails, you may have to ask the group, or have your partner ask the group, to change the subject. If a yucky stuff topic comes up that makes you uncomfortable, explain to the group how you feel and turn to your partner for support. Be warned: you may not be taken seriously the first time. They may laugh at you and keep talking. Your next tactic would be to request that they save the story until you are not present or tell the story out of earshot. In the case of yucky stuff, often people genuinely do not realize other people’s boundaries. Still others use those stories to sound impressive, to watch you squirm, or to “break you in.” If these tactics do not work, you may decide not to spend time with this social group and find other ways to bond with your partner.

Sarah Epstein is author of the upcoming book, Love in the time of medical school: Build a happy, healthy relationship with a medical studentand blogs at DatingMed.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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