It’s easy to find excuses not to follow your dream: It would take too much time, cost too much money, require too much effort. The next time you find yourself repeating those reasons, consider the example of Traci Carroll (Mu87, G92). A clarinet performance major who later received her doctorate in English, she thought about medical school for years. She had even signed up for chemistry classes after finishing her doctorate — the first step toward fulfilling med school requirements — when she found out she was pregnant. “So I thought it wasn’t meant to be,” she says.
Now, at age 41, she’s a divorced mother of two children, ages 7 and 9 — and a first-year medical student at East Tennessee State University.
It’s not a lifestyle many would envy. She gets up at 3 a.m. to study and do yoga, and she often falls asleep as soon as her kids are down for the night. “All I can do is take it one step at a time,” she says. “I’ve had to let go of straight A’s, because I wasn’t willing to park my kids in front of video games.”
As the oldest person in her class, she jokes about being “The Matriarch.” But despite the differences in age and lifestyle — she’s the only female student with children and the only single parent — she says she has finally found her tribe. “All my life, people said I was an overachiever,” she says. “I’ve always been more energized than most people around me. Now I feel validated because I’m surrounded by people like me. That feeling of searching that I’d had for 20 years is gone.”
Reaction from friends and family was mixed, she says. “It was either, ‘Great, I’m really proud of you,’ or ‘You are totally out of your mind.’ It does sound crazy to take on all this debt, not to mention I’ll be almost 50 by the time I finish medical school and my residency. But my kids need to see their parents pursuing their dreams, even if it’s unconventional. It’s hard, and I’m tired a lot of the time, but I haven’t regretted it for a moment.”
Therese Lucietto-Sieradzki (McC89, FSM98), of Belvidere, Ill., can certainly relate. An engineering major, she had always wondered about medical school but was afraid it would be too much work and would interfere with her desire to have a family. But soon after the birth of her first child, she found herself tormented by the thought that she would always regret not trying to be a doctor. Calculating that she wouldn’t be done with training until her mid-30s, she feared she was already too late.
Then her husband put the choice to her clearly: “You could be 34 and be a doctor, or you could be 34 and be an engineer. Either way, someday you will be 34.” So she took the leap. On the first day that medical school applications were accepted by mail, she was so anxious to send in her paperwork that she stood in front of the post office, waiting, before it even was open.
Desperately hoping to be accepted by Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, she called the admissions office a few months after having an interview there, only to be told that information on admission decisions could not be released over the phone. But something in Lucietto-Sieradzki’s voice must have touched the woman who answered the phone, because she eventually revealed that Lucietto-Sieradzki had been accepted. She still chokes up when she remembers that moment.
“I felt like I got a second chance at life,” she says.
While in school, she had her second child. She graduated in 1998, at the age of 31, then went on to family practice residencies at two Chicago-area hospitals. “I used to be the kind of person who couldn’t sit down until the house was perfect,” she says. “But I was so busy, I learned to let go. I’d just push things aside on the table and do my work.” As a condition of her Illinois Department of Rural Health scholarship, she had to work for four years in an underserved area. After meeting that requirement, she started her own private practice, and in fall 2006 she received the state’s Rural Physician of Excellence Award for her work with the population of Rochelle in northwest Illinois.
Although she works incredibly hard, her practice is not yet profitable (she still takes evening and weekend shifts at St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford). But she loves what she’s doing, and she doesn’t regret the time spent working in another field first.
“All my life experiences have made me a better doctor,” she says. “I think I’m a good physician because I was an engineer first. Working in the business world tempered my idealism. I learned life isn’t fair. Now it’s easier for me to deal with inequities and help patients cope as well. I never complain about taking an extra call. An overnight call doesn’t seem so bad compared to a last-minute business trip to Mexico or China!” — E.C.B.