Making it to medical school against all odds

Posted Dec. 27, 2010, at 5:37 p.m.

Late next summer, Maine’s only medical school will welcome to its first-year student ranks a young woman who made it there against almost all of the odds. When she walks through the doors of the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine that day the crowd had better stand back, because some part of her might just explode with pride and joy.

Well it should, because Sarah’s was a dream to be a physician that should have died a long time ago on a road to medical school littered with wrecked dreams. They crack up against the bridge abutment of unending personal sacrifice, get run into the ditch of relative failure by scalpel-sharp competition from too many other students fighting for too few med school slots, take detours to other professions that seem like a better life, and run out of financial or personal gas.

Not Sarah’s dream. Somehow, after all this time, through all the twists and turns, near crashes, and long hours running on fumes, it’s alive and well. In fact, it’s more than that; if you stand anywhere near her you can feel it vibrate, waiting barely within for the day someone hands her a white coat and a black stethoscope, calls her “Student Doctor,” and sends her out to see patients.

Had she given up on her climb to that thin-aired place where the healing arts are learned, no one would have faulted her. Had she failed to make it through the eye of the needle that med school admission represents, no one would have thought less of her. Had she reshuffled the tarot cards of life and seen another future, no one would have said that’s the wrong thing to do.

No one, that is, except Sarah. Some others may be made of sugar and spice and everything nice, but she’s made up of three parts gonads, four parts tenacity, and five parts smarts, all carried on the big wings of a lofty dream to be a physician. How else do you account for the fact that she is going to medical school when few expected her to even go to college? How else do you account for her ability to achieve near straight A’s in college while working as a clerk to pay her bills, volunteering and shadowing me around ERs and the office in her spare time?

I have wondered in the days since she called to tell me she had been accepted to medical school how a young woman from a working-class background in rural America makes it when so many others with more money and expectation behind them fail, and I think I know. It’s in part because she is also carried by the two dreams she carries for others.

One of those is the dream I think all great doctors carry for their patients; that as physicians they can change parts of their worlds with the gifts they have been given to make a difference. The blessed physicians can improve many lives, while the lucky ones get to save at least a few.

The other dream Sarah carries is the one all daughters of mothers who worked too hard their entire lives for too little money share — to be able to give their own children a better life than they have had. It is a wish so simple, so powerful, so understandable and so wonderful that when she told me of it I could have cried. Had I guessed it was there I would have understood a long time ago one big part of what has probably sustained Sarah against the odds. But I grew up as a male child of relative privilege, not the female child of working class parents in a culture where big aspirations are often just pavement on the road to disappointment.

Next August, Sarah will start the first of more than 1,400 days in her slog through medical school. I, and all who know her, will dream big for her future, and that of the children she will have one day. And we will send her this thought across the miles:

“You go, girl.”

Erik Steele, D.O., FAAFP is chief medical officer and vice president of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and executive director of the Maine Institute for Genetics and Health. He may be reached at esteele@emh.org.

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