For Mackenzie Walsh and her husband, there was A Window. 

They married during his fourth year, her first, of medical school, and began trying for a baby within a few months. If all went well, she hoped to get pregnant, give birth and finish breastfeeding before third-year rotations began. 

“For the first kid, for me, I knew I wanted that time to adjust to the new baby before I started rotations,” Walsh said. “If I wasn’t going to have that, I thought it would be better to accept that it wasn’t meant to happen at that time and wait.”

She and her husband gave themselves eight months before the timing would no longer work. Partway through month six, Walsh got the positive test. She’s due to deliver early February, midway through her second year at The University of North Texas Health Science Center’s Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine. 

For people who are or become parents in medical school, the journey can be hard and good, students and faculty said, made manageable by an external support system that may take the form of a generous partner. Together, they make careful calculations about what might work and when and how, while knowing that life interrupts even the medical student’s best-laid plans. 

Data on parents in medical school is hard to find

No one knows how many medical students are parents, according to a 2021 paper from Brown University. No national studies on the topic exist, the authors wrote, and neither medical school in Fort Worth collects the data for their own populations. 

Instead, there are educated guesses and anecdotes. Every year, the Association of American Medical Colleges surveys graduating students about the quality of their medical education. The survey asks students if they have non-spouse dependents, an umbrella phrase which includes children, but not exclusively. 

In 2022, about 7% of respondents said they had at least one.  

In her own work, Rynn Ziller thinks that percentage might be low. Ziller is the assistant dean for medical student success at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, and she’s helped advise students there for more than two decades. 

She estimates that at least one-third of the students at the school are parents. She’s also noticed an uptick in female students who enroll as parents or who plan to become one during their training. 

“They want it all. They want to be a mom, they want to be a doctor, they want to be a surgeon, whatever their chosen specialty is, and I help them figure out how to make it happen,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be an obstacle. It’s just, what do you want? And that’s what I’m going to help you obtain.”

They parent long-distance to make medical school work

Alicia Segovia’s day begins at 4:15 a.m. The early hour enables her to go to the gym by the time her daughter, who’s more than 400 miles away in Laredo, wakes up.

They FaceTime. Segovia reminds Emma, who’s 7, to brush her teeth. Then, Emma asks how many days until they see each other again. 

Like Walsh, Segovia is a second-year medical student at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine. She and her husband live apart — he and Emma in Laredo, Segovia in Fort Worth.

The long distance made sense for their family, Segovia said. Emma has a good friend group and a good school in Laredo. Segovia’s mother-in-law lives there, too. She has Alzheimer’s and benefits from having family nearby. 

For Segovia, though, the decision means seeing her husband and daughter only a handful of days each month. To protect that time, the in-between is heavily scripted. “I need to really grind it out during the week,” she said. 

Segovia studies in lieu of social plans or sleep. She brings her work to Laredo when she visits and, on the six-hour drive, she talks through course material with a peer or listens to a podcast about board exams, a series of tests taken throughout medical school and residency. 

All the while, she leans on her husband. He’s learned to dress Emma, do her hair and help her with school. He knows how to navigate a training bra and talk about periods, if and when the conversation arises. 

They mix school and family as often as possible

Mei Mei Edwards’ husband, Dane, serves a similar role, albeit closer to home. The Edwardses live with their 5-year-old daughter, Mei Lin, in Fort Worth. 

Edwards is a fourth-year medical student at the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU, a member of the school’s inaugural class. To make parenting work, she blurs the line between family and school.

In her first two years, which mostly coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, she watched lectures from home. She made lunch, folded laundry and changed diapers during class. When she ran errands, she listened to podcasts about medicine. She practiced clinical skills like cardiovascular exams on Mei Lin and Dane. 

“They’re both fantastic standardized patients, you know,” she said, grinning. “They don’t have the credentials, but man, they’re so good. Pulmonary exam, musculoskeletal — reflexes were a hit.”

When her school hosts an event, like a social at Cidercade, she brings her family. If the school pays for her ticket, she buys two more. If the gathering is student-only, she won’t attend. Doing so would mean less time with her family. “For me, well, it’s a no-brainer,” Edwards said.

Her husband, Dane, is proud of his wife. “She’s killing it in medical school,” he said. 

Her triumphs come, in part, through his struggle. Dane is a web developer and programmer. These days, he works solely from home. He takes Mei Lin to school and picks her up if Edwards’ rotations run long. 

“It can get lonely at times,” he said. “Sometimes I have to pick up the slack in parenting and sometimes that just has to be OK.”

Medical schools offer some parental support, too

Sometimes, when a student needs further support, both partners can turn to the medical school. 

At the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, students and staff looking for child care receive priority spots at the Lena Pope Early Learning Center on the Health Science Center’s campus. Lena Pope offers sliding-scale rates based on family income, Katye LaNier, Lena Pope’s director of marketing and communications, wrote in an email. 

When Mei Lin was a toddler and the Health Science Center housed what’s now the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU, the Edwardses sent her to Lena Pope.

Ziller, with the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, works one-on-one with students to shape their medical school journeys. If they’re pregnant, she helps them plan ahead: Depending on timing, they can retake a class, take a semester off, rearrange clinical rotations. Last year, she helped create a lactation room on site.

The Burnett School of Medicine at TCU offers mentorship through its faculty coaching program. When students arrive for their first year, they’re assigned a faculty coach like Dr. Collin O’Hara, assistant professor and physician development coach at the medical school. 

O’Hara and other physicians earned a coaching certificate through an almost yearlong program before the medical school welcomed its first class in 2019. She meets with her cohort of students, roughly 40 she shares with another coach, at least every quarter and as needed in between. 

Those meetings look like career development, wellness check-ins and academic support. O’Hara speaks with students about balancing career plans with family several times a year. Sometimes, she’ll share her own story. 

She and her husband planned to try for kids after residency, but in her final year, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. 

Her doctors encouraged her to wait two years after her treatments, to make sure the cancer didn’t return. It didn’t. Not long after, O’Hara gave birth to a son. Three years later, she had her second. 

“(Students) always ask me, well, when’s the best time to have a baby? And the answer is, there is no best time,” she said. “It’s going to be inconvenient. It’s going to interrupt your training and your career path. No matter when you choose. You just have to work it out with your partner about how best to manage that.”

‘The rest is life — and it’s going to happen no matter what you do’

Walsh’s baby, a boy, is due Feb. 3. Until then, she’s going to class in person. 

She knows, after he’s born, her approach to school will change. “​​You can sometimes fall into the trap of comparing yourself to your classmates,” she said. “You want to make sure that you’re keeping up, and I think I will have to redefine, for the next few months, what does it mean to be keeping up.”

Her husband is in his first year of residency. They have parents nearby, willing to provide child care. And when she’s away, she hopes her son won’t remember. “It’s really tough,” she said. “But that’s the reality. You just hope they don’t remember and you do the best you can.”

For Walsh, that means holding her many unknowns with open palms. 

“Nobody can promise you that everything is going to be OK,” she said. “At some point, you have a little bit of faith that certain things are out of your control and, as long as you’re doing everything you can to prepare yourself, then the rest is life — and it’s going to happen no matter what you do.”

For Segovia, it means moving to Corpus Christi for third-year rotations to be closer to her husband and daughter — only 2.5 hours away this time. Once she’s trained, she plans to move back to Laredo, back to family.

As for Edwards, she’ll learn her next placement in March, during Match, the process by which medical students are paired with residency programs. She plans to practice anesthesiology. 

Earlier this school year, she and Dane tried for a sibling for Mei Lin. They missed their window. They may try again another season, she said. Maybe, one day, they’ll adopt. 

In the meantime, her daughter’s hugs, her husband’s love — they’re enough. 

“You really, honestly do have horrible days,” she said. “I’m able to come home and give her that therapeutic hug, and it’s like, OK, today was a bad day. But you know, I still have this lovely little human with me, and she loves me no matter what.”

Mei Lin Edwards, 5, swings Jan. 15 at Dream Park in Fort Worth. Her mom, Mei Mei Edwards, is a fourth-year medical student at the Burnett School of Medicine at TCU. (Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report)

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at alexis.allison@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis AllisonHealth Reporter

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....