I am often asked why I decided to go into medicine in my forties. It’s a natural question, since many suburban soccer moms choose to disrupt their families to the extent required to make the transition. As many times as I have fielded the question, it still makes me uncomfortable. I am a private person in an age of oversharing millennials (not for long!).
My father is a physician. I grew up playing with his stethoscope. My first job was in his medical records department filing charts at thirteen. I remember stapling colored lab slips into piles of paper charts, arranging gross slides for his infectious disease lectures, but mostly I remember watching him interact with his patients. His compassion was his motivation. He is a skilled diagnostician, for which he was well known, a doctor’s doctor. In 1983, he became the first doctor in Mississippi to treat AIDS. He was later the first medical director of a hospice. We could not go anywhere without someone pulling him aside, profoundly grateful for his care. It became a family joke—how long after we walked in a restaurant would someone pull him aside. I worshipped him from a distance even as I lived under the same roof.
At Yale, I didn’t follow in my father’s footsteps. Part of me knew that I would be exposed as less smart, that I’d never make it through orgo, that I was fundamentally lazy and would flame out well before the work was done. My high school nickname for myself was Bastion of Mediocrity. I was always flopping between all-consuming periods in my varied interests, including painting, cycling and architecture. Ultimately, I went to graduate school in architecture and started a residential house renovation business soon after I had my second child. I loved transforming a tired, outdated house into a modern, family-friendly space to save an old building from the bulldozer. I was fortunate to work from home and be present for my young children while having the intellectual stimulation and satisfaction of a successful career.
Only a few months into that idyllic life, the unimaginable happened. My father, on his pedestal, impossible to live up to, was arrested. Eighteen months later, he was starting a sentence in federal prison for what will likely be the rest of his life. My world became juggling the image of a perfect suburban existence with traveling 1,000 miles with three squirmy toddlers past steel gates and patdowns to see their grandfather, sitting alongside tattooed gang members as my youngest noisily pushed chairs around the visitors room, and scheduling Sundays around weekly collect phone calls to be reassured by his cheerful southern drawl. I spent months researching case law to find any precedents his lawyers might be missing. I considered going to law school so that I could fight his case myself. Ultimately, I had to reconcile that the justice system is not necessarily about justice. For years, I was so consumed by the analytical aspects of his defense and the injustice of what had befallen my hero that I had failed to notice that he had created a life within those gloomy walls. In prison he was teaching GED and ESL classes. He asked me to research communicable diseases so he could teach a course on epidemics. I spent many nights sifting through medical journals, sending him copies of the latest research. My own self-doubt and fear of failure felt indulgent. I owed it to him, to myself, to my children to continue his work in medicine. I applied to postbac premed programs at the urging of my oldest child, who was 10 at the time and all about STEM and girl power. My husband, who has been at my side since sophomore year in college, never questioned my motivation or whether I would succeed. I chose a program directly linked to a medical school and spent an exhausting and humbling year figuring out how to learn science while dragging my giant backpack to soccer games and swim meets. It would take a separate post to detail the trials, tribulations and near misses of med school at 40 while raising strong-willed tweens, but somehow I made it through.
I am now a second year emergency medicine resident in a program that is a perfect fit. My toddlers are now teenagers, and are each independent, strong willed thinkers. Sometimes, in fact, I wish they needed me a little more. I will not pretend that this was an easy path. It has been grueling, anxiety producing and has resulted in more gray hairs than I can count. Ultimately, I have no regrets. I have found my true self in the ED, and my dad is so proud, jokingly calling me “cowboy” for my love of the chaos of emergency medicine.