Their eyes met across the darkened room. Both in uniform, they gravitated toward each other, shoes sticking to the dirty frat house floor.
The only sober people in the place had found each other in the revelry of a house party.
“Oh, it was really romantic,” jokes Sarah Michael. From that questionable start, Sean and Sarah Michael, one-time emergency medical technicians assigned to watch for intoxicated partiers at CU Boulder frat houses, have continued their separate but parallel paths to practicing medicine.
On Friday the couple learned they will travel to Detroit for their residencies in emergency medicine, he with a doctor of medicine degree from University of Colorado School of Medicine and she with a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree from Rocky Vista University in Parker. Her envelope lay on the table beside her husband’s Friday because they are matching together and because Rocky Vista does not gather for Match Day.
Both knew when they were young that they would go into medicine. He was 14 when he went through EMT training (the earliest you can do that with a waiver) and she was 18 (the earliest you can do that without a waiver). While working as EMTs for separate Denver area hospital systems, they applied to medical and osteopathic schools around the country knowing they wanted to stay together.
“We knew it would allow us to be there for each other,” she says.
In 2008, they entered their separate schools, not entirely sure what to expect.
Osteopathic and allopathic doctors are considered legally and professionally equal, but the training differs in that osteopathic medical schools emphasize the importance of the musculoskeletal system and the use of manipulative techniques. CU and Rocky Vista are the only medical schools in Colorado.
“The most surprising thing was how similar our experiences were,” Sarah, 26, says.
“The coursework is nearly identical. My training involves more of the osteopathic technique and manipulation so I have a better eye for biomechanical pathology. But basic science was stressed less at my school, and I have had to work harder on that.
“It was a nice synergy. He helped me understand the mechanics of antibiotic resistance, and I helped him understand musculoskeletal chest pain. It really sort of broadened our experiences. “
Sean, 27, says he noticed other differences.
“The curriculum at CU has had more time to mature so we have a richer array of threads that run through. It includes what students view as ancillary activities like evidence-based medicine, culturally effective care, ethics and financing of health care and health policy. These things don’t take center stage but they are there and we get more exposure. Those are things Sarah had to figure out for herself.”
He said he used some techniques in the emergency department that he had learned from his wife.
“There was one situation where a young man came in with neck pain from sleeping on his neck funny. He was in a lot of pain – enough to present to an emergency department. I spent five minutes talking to him about stretches and relaxation techniques and was able to save him and the system the cost of a prescription for narcotics because he was really able to solve the problem on his own. I just feel more comfortable helping patients with simple interventions because of Sarah.”
Both schools use an educational block system, but they came in different order.
“It was actually kind of fun. By the time Sean had neurology block, I had already done it and I had a better understanding so I could help him. He helped me with cardiology because he had it first. We were able to help each other.”
Matching together has been “a source of great anxiety,” Sarah says. No one they talked to had ever seen their combination: same specialty, different medical training.
“We asked one doctor for advice and he said ‘I just don’t know how to advise you. I think you should apply everywhere. Let me know how it goes,’” she says.
Both have friends in each other’s classes and were able to educate them about the differences and similarities in their training. At the end of four years, they have no regrets.
“I think it worked out really well for us,” Sean says.