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How to Care for Your DO Student – Interview with Matt & Andrea Velazquez

Andrea Velazquez, OMS-III, is currently enrolled at Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis. She’s also a mom of two who believes she can find a successful path through medical school that doesn’t involve sacrificing time with her family.

In 2020, her husband Matt made the selfless decision to leave his career so she could answer her call to medicine. Here, both Matt and Andrea offer tips about how loved ones can care for their DO as they prepare for COMLEX-USA.

Matt, you recently tweeted about how proud you were of Andrea for passing COMLEX-USA Level 1. How can loved ones support their DO as they prepare for COMLEX?

MV: I think the biggest thing is trusting your DO knows what they need and understanding what a successful day looks like for them. Knowing how to support them is often more important than offering your own idea of what support looks like.

Sometimes studying for their COMLEX exam will mean really long hours and really long days, and at times they’re going to be gone a lot. Other times, they’re going to want to stay home, sleep in, or go to bed early. There might even be times they decide to attend an event they’d previously said no to because they’ve gotten further along in their studying than they expected they would—or they just need a break!

The last thing they need is for you to say they should study instead—that they shouldn’t go. If they believe that they’re at a good spot and need a break, you should trust and support them.

Do you think some people need to have that push to study?

MV: I think there’s a time and a place for that. If you see your DO is obviously neglecting study and is doing it for an extended period of time, there is a gentle way to approach it. Ask them what their ideal version of support looks like and what you can do to help them get into a position where they can study more effectively. Let them steer the conversation so you can work through their doubts, concerns, or issues together. You never want to be accusatory by saying, “You’re not studying X amount, or you’re not doing enough.”

That’s reacting to only a fraction of the whole picture. Maybe they’re never studying when you see them, but studying is all they do when you’re not with them. Maybe they need the break of spending time with you to study more effectively!

Here’s an example: Our daughters had a softball game, and Andrea had her COMLEX exam the next day. People asked her, “What are you doing here when you have an exam tomorrow?” And her answer was, “What else am I going to study? I need to be calm and feel like I’m taking care of myself, too.” That’s not the time to be cramming and stressing; it’s the time to get yourself in the right frame of mind.

Did you ever have a moment where you didn’t know what you could do to help? How did you overcome that?

MV: All the time. There were times when I tried to offer support, but it wasn’t exactly the support she needed. Sometimes she had to tell me that my attempts weren’t helping—that she needed to talk to a classmate or call one of her mentors or go out to lunch with a friend who was further along in training. At those times, I needed to provide her the space to lean into her community. I always want her to get the help she needs, even if it’s not from me.

Part of trusting your DO is knowing that you’re not always the person who is going to be able to help them the best. I’ve never taken COMLEX; I’ve never gone to medical school; I don’t understand the challenges that my wife faced and still faces.

There are other times where I had to let Andrea be on her own to process her feelings so we could regroup later. It’s important to acknowledge their frustration, but remind them that they’re doing great and are doing everything they need to be doing. They’ve been working for months to prepare for their exam. In those moments, you just need to tell them to keep doing what they’re doing and they’re going to be fine—and then slowly back out of the room with the promise of ice cream later.

Andrea, how was Matt helpful while you were preparing for COMLEX?

AV: Matt is a good planner, and we have constant communication about what’s going on. We regularly check in and make adjustments as needed. We’re able to have a high level of flexibility, which is essential when there are all these variables.

If the kids had a bad day and I planned on doing a lot of studying, sometimes I’d need to shift things around. It’s a constant conversation, and we prioritize our marriage and our family over everything. For us, medical school is a family commitment. We even talk to our girls about med school, and I tell them that I couldn’t do it without them. I think that kind of language for families and partners—emphasizing that this is our commitment—is helpful because it keeps everyone focused and willing to do what it takes to stay dedicated to each other and to that common goal.

What was it like to balance family life with the demands of medical school and studying for COMLEX? What are some of your tips?

AV: I see a lot of my peers struggle with relationships and with balancing. And I get a lot of questions about how I can possibly do this with two kids. I actually think that having a family helps keep you focused rather than taking away from your studying. I want to be able to tell people that it’s possible, and you can do it.

There was a time when I thought being a mom wouldn’t make me a good candidate for med school, and that it would be too hard. But here I am, as a mom and a medical student! So hopefully, this message comes across. All kinds of people can and do become good doctors; there’s no box that everybody has to fit into.

MV: Andrea intentionally scheduled her COMLEX exam for the day after our kids’ last day of school so she could study while they were not at home. She would study until around 3:30 p.m. when the kids would get home from school, and then she would take a break and spend time with us until the kids went to bed. Things shifted slightly toward a heavier studying load in the last month before the exam, but her emphasis on being around for at least a few pre-bedtime hours didn’t waver. Being present for them was important to her, so she made balancing her time a priority. She’s also able to lead our girls by example so our kids can see that, if you want something, you can make it happen. She’s showing them that it’s possible to achieve your dreams.

AV: I think the best advice is to be disciplined, but also be flexible. Being disciplined doesn’t solely mean locking in on doing the maximum number of test questions, because you should also want to keep all the best parts of your life and who you are as a person during this time of studying. Structure time for breaks. I made sure I was doing an afternoon walk with our dog, made time for family dinners, and if the kids were only going to be home and awake with us during a certain time, I made sure I was a part of it. Your schedule doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.

I think sometimes when you don’t do as well on studying or you’re a little behind, there’s a temptation to cut something from your life to make even more room for studying. I tried really hard to limit that as much as possible; I believe you have to protect those other things as much as you protect your study time.

Sometimes an adjustment of expectations is necessary. I am not top of my class, and I had to let that go in order to do what I needed to do as a wife and mom. Be realistic about what’s possible for any single human. You shouldn’t let go of the parts of you that are really amazing so you can measure up to other people. Within the parameters of a passing score for exams like Level 1, there is a lot of wiggle room. What you can do is enough.

If you’re not sleeping, eating, and nourishing your relationships—your mental, emotional, and spiritual needs—you’re not only going to have a hard time showing up for your exam, but also for your life as well as you should be.

I don’t think students trust that, but I have seen over and over again that it is true. Just believe that it is possible to make time for things. I was home for the majority of family dinners, sports practices, and even coached while studying for COMLEX. It’s possible with discipline and planning. Sometimes you have to be creative about creating time for the things you care about instead of giving them up. You want those relationships to be there after COMLEX, and you don’t want to get a certain score at the expense of the people who love and support you.