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Starting Over

Kathryn Boling was not the conventional medical student.

At 53 years old, she has raised two daughters, been through a divorce, had a 30-year career, and moved across the country to pursue her “life’s dream.”

But when Boling graduated from The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, May 15, she was not alone.

Of the school’s 172 fourth-year medical students, five women were older than 35. They’re all mothers. They’ve all had other careers. And on that Sunday, they all became doctors.

“I had dreamed about doing this ever since I was a little girl, but frankly once I turned 45, I thought I was going to have to give that dream up,” said Boling, who is from Pasadena, Calif.

But when her marriage fell apart in 2005, she decided to give it a try.

Boling enrolled in a post-baccalaureate premedical program where she studied chemistry, biology, and physics. She took the MCAT twice because her first score wasn’t high enough for GW. And in 2007, Boling, who had spent the past 30 years as a nurse, packed her bags and moved across the country to the nation’s capital.

“I felt like I had nothing after I got divorced. I clung to this dream as a lifeboat out of the way I was feeling,” she said. “I left everything behind to come here by myself and start med school.”

Anita Cucchiaro, 43, also made sacrifices to pursue a medical degree.

When she decided to quit her job as a legal assistant at a D.C. law firm to attend medical school at age 39, her husband, Marc, thought she was crazy. At the time, they had one-year-old and five-year-old sons.

“He said it didn’t make any sense, but eventually he came around,” said Cucchiaro.

The next eight years – four years of post-baccalaureate work and four year of medical school – became a true test of Cucchiaro’s and the rest of the women’s time management skills.

Cucchiaro studied while watching her sons’ Little League games. Natasha Casey, now 44, arrived at the Himmelfarb Library at 5:30 a.m. every day so she could get home by 7 p.m. to spend time with her three children. And Meredith Nachbahr, 36, took advantage of her daily hour-long commute from Baltimore by studying in the quiet car on the MARC train.

“The first year was the hardest. It was a huge adjustment going back to such intense learning. Trying to figure out how to do it all and strike a balance with your personal life was a challenge,” said Nachbahr, who has a nine-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter.

For Casey, the most difficult part was learning to adjust her expectations.

“I think people who go to medical school have that innate thing in their personalities where they want to be the best they can and get the best grades, and I obviously want all those things too,” she said. “But it took me a long time to learn that I could step back and spend a little more time with my kids and not study quite so much. And maybe my grades would go down a point or two, but I would still pass.”

Rhonda Goldberg, associate dean of student affairs at SMHS, said most nontraditional students have to realize this while they’re juggling so many responsibilities.

“You can’t be the perfect mom, and you can’t be the perfect medical student,” she said. “But as long as you’re doing your best, then consider yourself successful.”

When Christine Hodge and her husband separated during her first semester of medical school, she also found herself forced to lower her high standards as she adjusted to becoming a single mother of her then six-year-old son.

“It was hard to realize that a mediocre performance as a medical student with everything else I had going on was quite an achievement and something I should be proud of,” said Hodge, who turned 40 in December.

Hodge, along with the four other women, left a well-paying career to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.

Hodge had previously worked as an IT analyst at a health care technology company.

“I enjoyed my job, but ultimately I found it a little unsatisfying. I wanted to have a more direct impact on people’s lives,” she said.

Nachbahr had always wanted to go to medical school, but she worried about taking the MCAT, getting accepted into schoo,l and handling the science classes. Her fears kept her in an advertising career for eight years until she realized it was never going to fulfill her.

“One day I looked around at the number of people who are miserable in their careers and thought to myself one day I’m going to be 40. And I could be 40 and a doctor or 40 and miserable,” said Nachbahr, who will be starting an obstetrics and gynecology residency this summer at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. “So I put one foot in front of the other and started down the path.”

But in order to go to medical school, they all had to pay more than $48,500 a year in tuition.

“It’s scary to be 40 and have a quarter of a million dollars of debt,” said Hodge, who will be doing a double residency in psychiatry and family medicine at the University of California San Diego.

Cucchiaro, who will do a residency at GW in anesthesiology, views her $300,000 loan as a second house she doesn’t have. And Boling, who will be doing a family medicine residency at Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore, plans to either die with her debt or have it forgiven by the federal government after working in an underserved area for ten years.

These women worked hard just to get into medical school, but the most difficult tasks lay ahead of them.

For the first two years, GW medical students spend most of their time in the classroom with a portion of clinical experience at GW Hospital and local physicians’ offices. During third and fourth year, students complete rotations in different medical specialties. And all the while, they’re studying for the United States Medical Licensing Examination – a three-step examination over the course of their four years in school and their first year of residency.

“I had the erroneous notion that getting in was the hardest part, but I was wrong. School was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” said Boling, who has inspired her youngest daughter to go to dental school. “The pure dedication it takes to pass all of your classes and do well clinically – it’s such an intense effort that goes on for four straight years.”

On the second day of her first year of medical school, Casey worried she was in a little over her head.

“I walked into the dean’s office and said, ‘I think you’ve made a mistake. I don’t think I can really do this,’’’ said Casey, who will be starting a primary care residency at GW this summer. “But thankfully the dean talked me off the ledge.”

All five women said that even though they were older than their peers, age didn’t make a difference when it came to making friends.

“I have friends who are 23 and 24 that I’m really close with. They’re younger than my own children, but I’ve become closer to my medical school classmates than I have to anyone else in my life,” said Boling. “Sometimes we were together for four or five days straight in the library studying for a test. They become like your family.”

The diversity among students is a key part of GW’s medical school, said Goldberg.

“They come from various cultures and various age groups and sometimes nontraditional backgrounds, but they all come together for a common goal. Each student contributes to the student body, and they learn from one another,” she said. “A lot of these nontraditional students worry that their former life experiences might set them back in becoming a doctor, but I think that those experiences will actually make them a better doctor.”

Bowling agrees that she’ll be able to relate better to her patients and show more empathy because of the experiences she had before becoming a doctor.

“I have raised children, lost a parent, fallen in love and then lost that love, failed at things, started over, been very ill, and recovered from that illness. I can’t help but think those experiences will make me a better doctor,” said Boling, who got engaged last month.

Boling hopes she can be an inspiration to others who are contemplating going to medical school later in life.

“People say it will take too much time to go back, but time is going to go by either way. You might as well be doing what you want do,” she said. “It’s never too late.”

This story was first published by GW Today. Read it here.