Maine med school students find love in class of their own

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On their first day in the Maine Track MD program at Tufts University, Ryan Lena took a seat next to Emily Follo in the orientation lecture hall.

As she remembers it, he cracked a joke and she laughed. As he remembers it … well, he doesn’t really.

“When Emily reminds me of that, I remember it,” Lena admitted.

He definitely remembers — no prompting necessary — talking with her a little later at Cow Island, where all of the new Maine Track medical students went through team-building exercises and slept in yurts.

He also remembers that he had a girlfriend at the time, which was perfectly fine since Follo had already decided she didn’t want to date anyone in the medical school program. Two soon-to-be doctors in a relationship? That seemed tedious.

“Our whole life would be medicine and (we’d) not have any other interests,” Follo said.

But as their first year went on, the two joined the same study group, became friends. Lena’s girlfriend turned into an ex-girlfriend after not too long.

Follo reconsidered her stance on dating a fellow med student. One night, the two went to dinner. 

By their second year, Lena, from Falmouth, and Follo, from Orono, were a couple. By their third year, when they were both assigned a yearlong clerkship at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, they’d quietly decided they didn’t need separate hospital-owned apartments. 

“We just decided we would share one apartment,” Follo said. “For some reason, we didn’t want to make a big deal over being a couple, so we just, like, didn’t really tell anyone. And then (Greg Hardy, Stephens Memorial’s chief medical officer) was there when we were moving in to welcome us. He was very confused. He was like, ‘Wait, so whose apartment is whose?’ We were like, ‘Actually, we’re sharing.’ And he was like, ‘Oh. That’s interesting.'”

Interesting because while Stephens Memorial has hosted Maine Track medical students for several years, none of those students had paired up in a serious relationship before.

In fact, it was unusual for any Maine Track students to get together long term. Maybe one couple in each graduating class.

This year, four couples, including Follo and Lena, have gotten engaged or recently married. Five if you count the couple with one Maine Track student and one Tufts’ traditional med school student.

That’s out of a class of 36 people.

“It comes up every now and then,” Lena  said. “We just kind of laugh about it, that this happened.”

SPARKS FLY

Maine Track, which began 10 years ago, is a medical school program that encourages Maine students — and those interested in rural health care — to become doctors. Students start out taking classes at Tufts in Boston, but they quickly shift to Maine hospitals for most of their training.

Students like it because they can apply early if they’re from the University of Maine system or Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges and can skip the MCAT if they get in through that Early Assurance program. Some also receive $25,000 scholarships.

Program leaders like it because — they hope — students will fall in love with both rural medicine and Maine, and will practice here as doctors, in a state that badly needs them.

Students falling in love with each other wasn’t part of the plan. But things happen. 

“I’ve suspected a few times,” Hardy, Stephens Memorial’s chief medical officer and site director for Maine Track, said with a laugh. “I go, ‘These two. I know what’s going on with these two.'”

Like other med school programs, Maine Track keeps students busy. If they aren’t in class, they’re in a hospital. If they aren’t in a hospital, they’re studying. If they aren’t studying, they’re asleep.

It can make dating difficult. 

So when two people get along really well in a study group — or maybe when a couple of homesick students start commiserating in the communal kitchen — sparks can fly. 

“We both hated living in Boston (the first year) because we’re both very much Maine people and like being outside,” said Jennifer Bergeron of Lewiston, who met Tristen Ripley of Liberty. “He was always in the kitchen complaining about how much he didn’t like living in the city and I would just join him in that misery, I guess. Then we started dating. Then we got married.”

WEDDING BELLS

No one knows why so many members of the Class of 2018 have decided to marry each other when it was so uncommon in classes past. But students say they definitely felt a special camaraderie, especially because most of their classmates were fellow Mainers. 

“Medical school is extraordinarily hard,” Bergeron said. “It’s helpful when you have someone going through it with you and who can understand why you’re studying 12 hours a day or why you can’t go out on the weekends, or to just share experiences when you get home. I think that’s huge. I think the reason why a lot of the Maine Track couples got together — you have that common ground together. It’s love, I guess.”

For a while, the class ran a betting pool on who would get married first.

“We hadn’t been dating the longest, but we won,” Bergeron said. “I don’t think anyone expected us to. I just really wanted a fall, Maine wedding, so I pulled it together really fast this past October.”

Two other couples plan to get married this month. Lena and Follo will marry in the fall.

They got engaged last fall, a few months after their clerkship at Stephens Memorial. Follo didn’t think much about it when Lena asked if she and their roommate, a fellow Maine Track student, wanted to hike Streaked Mountain in Buckfield. They’d hiked it a lot during their time at Stephens, one of their stress relievers after an 11-hour day at the hospital.     

At the top, Lena paused, silent, trying to gather the right words to propose. Follo had no idea.

“I mean, we had talked about getting married, but it was not on my radar at all that day,” she said. “This pregnant pause I thought was just all of us quietly enjoying the view.”

He asked. She said yes. He presented her with an engagement ring created with the sapphire and diamonds from her great-grandmother’s ring.

Annie Sprogell, their roommate, snapped a photo of the couple: Follo with her left hand on her new fiance’s chest, the engagement ring slyly on display.

Lena texted it to Hardy with the note, “Look closely.”

“That was a pretty neat thing,” Hardy said. “It was just great news. And the fact they drove back up here (from Portland) to do it just shows how much they really bought into the community and the rural lifestyle, which is going to be great, hopefully, for the future. Hopefully, they’ll come back here and work.”

Follo and Lena certainly want to.

The couple will marry Sept. 8 at her family’s home in Falmouth. Sprogell will give a reading at the ceremony. Hardy is invited, as are a number of Maine Track classmates.

The Class of 2018 will graduate this weekend in Boston. After that, they’ll go their separate ways, spending the next three or four years as residents.

Follo and Lena will do their residencies together in Pennsylvania. She will concentrate on family medicine. He will focus on obstetrics and gynecology — a field he chose after mentorship from Hardy, an ob-gyn.

After residency, they hope to return to Maine. Ideally, somewhere rural. Somewhere like the places in which they fell in love and got engaged.

“Somewhere like Norway,” Lena said.

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Ryan Lena of Orono and Emily Follo of Falmouth pose for a photo moments after getting engaged on Streaked Mountain in Buckfield last fall. They are one of four couples in the Class of 2018 who met and fell in love during Tufts University School of Medicine’s Maine Track MD program. (Submitted photo)

Jennifer Bergeron of Lewiston and Tristen Ripley of Liberty married last fall. The couple met while students in the Tufts University School of Medicine’s Maine Track MD program. Four couples in the Class of 2018 have gotten engaged. Bergeron and Ripley were the first to marry. (Photo courtesy of Scott Linscott Photography)

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