Travel during residency: perspective of a resident’s spouse

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My husband and I are nearing the completion of a fifth and final year of residency. I say “we” because, as all residents know, the training years involve the entire family. As I reflect on the struggles and successes over the past five years, there are a few things that I know have helped us cope with the challenges, and one of those things has been travel.

We made significant life changes throughout residency (as most residents do), including buying a house, getting engaged, getting married, and having two children. Travel was another big one. My husband and I, and now our two children, took at least one big trip a year during residency (and countless smaller trips). And it helped our family during some tumultuous years.

A resident’s schedule can wear down the entire family. The emotionally and physically demanding work will intrude on even the most solid relationships. When we were in the thick of it – the grueling hours, the little time to communicate or even see each other, we had to rely on shared values outside of the medical world to hold our family together. One of our shared values is travel, exploring other cultures, and maxing out credit cards (sort of joking about that last one).

What’s a little more debt on top of the hundreds of thousands you already owe? (Again, sort of kidding.) But there is a price to pay towards becoming a doctor, and it’s a big one financially (I’m referring, of course, to the debt from medical school on top of a modest resident salary). Aside from these financial debts, there are the emotional ones— time away from family and the inability to attend holidays/events with loved ones, and there’s the physical ones— stress on the body, and little time for exercise or sleep. We decided that it was worth it to fall into even more financial debt to help alleviate some of the other debts. Choosing to travel often meant undivided family attention, lots of outdoor time, and exercise. We traveled on a budget, found cheap flights and affordable accommodations, and we prioritized trips with deals from where we were living on the East Coast.

Additionally, a few key decisions allowed us to make travel work:

1. We built travel into my husband’s training program

Since travel is important to us, travel opportunities became a factor when ranking programs for the Match. There are programs which encourage (or allow) rotations abroad. My husband’s program was outstanding in this way. We’d planned on traveling to Kenya for a rotation before I became pregnant with my daughter, and it didn’t work out, but many other residents were able to take part in this opportunity. In his second year of residency, we lived in Panama for a month while we took Spanish classes (his were geared for the medical field) and he worked at a local clinic. He was also able to work with Native American tribes in New Mexico to help establish a tele-relationship with Native American tribes. I was able to take part in many of these travels because of my summer breaks from teaching.

2. We took advantage of conference trips

I have a love-hate relationship with conference trips. I love them because they help pay for travel, but I hate them because I always end up resenting the little time off my husband has to enjoy the destination. Throughout my husband’s residency, we took family trips to D.C., Chicago, and Hawaii (twice) for conferences. His transportation and meals were covered, and our hotel room was covered for the whole family. I would often opt for travel over staying home, but I quickly came to understand that I would most likely be single-parenting away from home which means no access to some of the daily help in our routine (which can be important when you have little children). After several conference trips, I also decided that I would rather use my own vacation time from work on trips we’d planned as a family.

3. We used time off to travel

I know, I know: What time off? Time off is few and far between in residency. No one could blame a resident for wanting to spend any time off relaxing, decompressing, and catching up on sleep. Travel can be stressful in its own way. But here’s the thing: Residents are used to stress and travel is a different kind of stress altogether. Being in a new destination can be stressful but also exciting, and it encourages outside time and exercise that a resident might not be able to muster up at home. Additionally, a resident is already used to lack of sleep, so jet lag isn’t as terrible. Travel necessitates living in the moment. I can’t tell you how many long weekends we traveled to make the most of an extra day off.

4. We recognized that I (the non-medical spouse) would do most of the leg-work

During the first few years of residency, we often left for a trip after my husband finished an overnight shift at the hospital. Being so sleep deprived, there was no way we’d allow him to drive. As the more-rested partner, I ended up doing the brunt of the driving. I also did most of the trip planning, which to me was a total plus because I enjoy it. It was beneficial to do a lot of research about the destination because we were squeezing in as much as we could into the little time we had available.

Our medical journey has shown me how much doctors sacrifice for their careers, and more importantly, what balance needs to exist to help residents thrive. If travel is a passion and goal of yours, please know that it’s possible to continue to travel during residency. When I think back on these years, I’ll remember some great trips spent with the ones I love.

Bethany Vana is a writer who blogs at Kiddos and Carry-Ons.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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