In one of the Indiana Jones movies, there is a scene where Indiana was between two chasms and across them spanned a bridge, but he had to step out into the chasm before he could see the bridge. At 45, making the career transition to go to medical school was a lot like that for me.
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My real-life story started with two dreams that were my Indiana Jones Bridge.
The specifics are fuzzy on the first dream, but the message was not: “You should explore the medical field.” So, I did. I followed the promptings and looked into a few schools, but my kids were still in high school and my priority was to be there for them. Medical school went by the wayside.
Then several years later, I had another dream. This one was very specific. I was in the country, following a country doctor around trying to be an apprentice. He looked at me sternly, like he was looking right through me, and said, “You need to get some real medical training.” Then still dreaming, I saw myself go to a hospital. I was touring it, trying to decide whether I wanted to be a nurse or a doctor. As a walked out of the hospital, I knew I wanted to be a doctor.” Then I woke up.
I Had Direction for my Career Goals, but also Some Serious Obstacles
- I had no medical background whatsoever
- I was 45
- I was really, really bad at math.
I Needed to Find Someone Who Knew How to Teach
There was nothing I could do about a lack of medical background or being 45, but the idea occurred to me that if I could find a really good math teacher, maybe I could get through calculus and trigonometry.
I based my decision for where to take my pre-med classes on one thing and one thing only: Which school had a great math teacher?
And so, began the inquisition. I called every registrar at every school, “Do you have an outstanding math teacher?” The answer was always grumbled, “Ah, dah, I don’t really know.” “Thank you.” Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Over and over again. I got the same response.
Finally, I called the registrar at Texas Women’s College and to my delight, she said, “Yes. Actually, we do, but she is leaving after this year.”
I couldn’t get there fast enough.
The Psychology of Learning
This instructor was amazing. I was going through a divorce at the time and that math class was the only thing in my world that was black and white. It was comforting.
She was comforting. She had a great sense of humor—very understated in her approach. “It’s just a numbers game (a double meaning, no doubt). Just keep doing it. It will click,” she reassured us. And sure enough, it did start to click.
She assigned 60 problems a night. The next day, she would do 4-5 on the board. After struggling for hours, the night before, I watched her in amazement. “Wow! The answer to this problem actually exists.” Sometimes, I would get the answer right, but I didn’t solve it the way she did on the board. She assured me that was fine. What a revelation! That was when I realized math could be creative too. Creative I can do!
My Second Career Transition Was a Time of Bonding with my Son
In spite of all the intense studying, there were some sweet memories. My son was in school at the University of Texas at Austin and I was at Denton (another city) at Texas Women’s University. It was a cool time between us because we were both in school.
He visited me for Christmas. I was totally broke, making about $10,000/year. I made him a drawing and he made me a ceramic cup. We had some hot chocolate and that was our Christmas. I think it was the best Christmas I ever had.
Three Times I Got the Right Help at the Right Time in Finding my Purpose
Finding a great teacher was not the last time getting the right help at the right time kept me motivated. Though there were several incidents of help, there are three that stand out.
1)During medical school, I was again struggling with a certain course and was starting to doubt my sanity for attempting medical school at all.
I said, “God, if you want me to be a doctor, I have to get through this.”
The very next day, a fellow student told me about a program in the library that helped with that exact course.
2) In my senior year of pre-med, I sent out applications for medical school, but felt discouraged at my prospects. Applying was a long, grueling process. Just to get away, I would jump in the car and I drive an hour and half to the nearest metropolitan area. One weekend, as I was driving back home, I saw this huge billboard that read, “Mission Impossible, but with the “IM” crossed out.
Every time I was ready to give up, God would encourage me.
3) Later that same year, I was literally a thousand miles from home. Another inquiry into another medical school. As I walked out of the office, I was discouraged feeling that acceptance was a slim chance. I punched the elevator button for the first floor. Instead, somehow I ended up on the 10th As the elevator doors pulled back on the 10th floor, they revealed a huge poster that said, “Don’t Give Up!”
Sometimes, God encourages us with the “still, small voice.” Though these “coincidences” may seem small, many years later, I still remember them because of their profound impact on me during dark times. They made such a difference.
I did ultimately get accepted to medical school, but I was so naïve to the challenges ahead!
My Career Goal Fulfilled: Finally! Med School, Here I Come!
What do you mean I have to work 80 hours a week and study on top of that? My third year of medical school I got up at 4:00 a.m., did my rounds and then attended class at 3:00 p.m. Every day I fell asleep in the class. It became my 3:00 nap instead of my 3:00 class. I felt so stupid, but I was so exhausted. And it was lonely. But I got through it and then came my residency.
More Guidance for the Career Transition When I Needed It
When I was applying for residency, I visited 4-5 different residencies: Cincinnati, OH; Raleigh, NC; Lawrence, MA; and Kingsport, TN. I was struggling with the decision, constantly going back and forth in my head, but I was leaning toward the one in Lawrence, Massachusetts because it was the only one with an emphasis on being bilingual.
Traveling back from my last interview from the residency in Raleigh, N.C., a truck passed me. Painted on the side, spelled out in huge letters was the word: “Lawrence.” As it passed, I looked through my rearview mirror and saw his front license plates that read: “Ain’t God great!” I have not seen a truck like that before and since. Within months, I was enrolled in the residency at Lawrence, Massachusetts.
What Kept Me Motivated and Got Me Unstuck?
What kept me motivated through ten years of often very difficult times? I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was fulfilling my life purpose. I asked God to encourage me when I was most down or unclear, and I sought out great teachers to shore up my knowledge deficiencies that could have kept me from my goal (if I had let them).
In spite of starting my medical school journey at 45, I am now practicing medicine at the Navajo Reservation Medical Clinic and doing exactly what the country doctor in my dream told me to do: “Getting some “real medical training.”
Dr. Susan Elizondo, M.D.