I still remember the woman trying to stifle her sobs. Tears ran through her fingers. Her body gently shook. She couldn't stand the wait. I glanced at my girlfriend, Stephanie, sitting next to me at the table. She had seen the woman, too, but then quickly looked away and tried to do anything to distract herself from those same thoughts, from wondering what the future had in store.
We were in a large room at Stephanie's medical school, along with more than a hundred of her classmates, minutes away from opening the envelopes that would disclose their fates. Across the country, in every medical school, a similar scene was taking place — sealed envelopes containing the futures of the nation's newest class of doctors.
It happens every year at this time. On the third Thursday in March, unbeknownst to most of the country, more than 15,000 graduating medical students get their marching orders. A computer algorithm digests student rankings of top choices for cities and hospitals, along with similar rankings from the nation's hospitals, and spits out matches.
Although these students are still a few months from the crowning ceremonies in which they will officially become doctors, this day, known as Match Day, is the more dramatic culmination of their years of education. Each year on Match Day, at the same exact hour across the country, the nation's graduating medical students are handed an envelope with their name on it. Inside, a fragment of a sentence on a single sheet of paper dictates their first jobs as doctors.
What comes next is only more intense. In the years that follow, these new doctors experience a trial of sleepless nights, beeping pagers and demanding senior physicians during the period known as internship and residency.
Just three months from Match Day, they fill the halls of hospitals, responsible for patients and learning the aspects of medicine that school could never teach them. Lives begin and end in front of their eyes. Days blend into one another, in 24-hour shifts and 80-hour workweeks. Spouses are left alone, sleep is disregarded, and healthy habits often abandoned. They enter one of the most taxing professions, one that will demand everything of them in these first years, and hopefully train them to be the caring, competent people the rest of us turn to for our well-being.
And it all starts with this unique initiation process that few people outside the profession have ever heard of.
If Stephanie got her first or second choice that day, we would start our life together in California. No. 3 meant Boston. No. 4, St. Louis. No. 5 through 8 and, well, I couldn't even remember. Finally, the dean announced that we could open the envelopes.
Amid the shouts and screams of joy, I turned back to see what happened to the woman we had seen crying, but she was lost in the sea of new doctors meeting their match.
Brian Eule is the author of Match Day: One Day and One Dramatic Year in the Lives of Three New Doctors. He has worked as a journalist for several newspapers, and frequently contributes to Stanford Magazine. He lives with his wife in Northern California.