The difficult road to becoming a doctor

On May 15, 2011, 147 students embarked on their careers as doctors as they graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

One student, Jenny Rowland, who will pursue a career in Radiology and continue her training at Penn, shared her personal thoughts and emotions as she prepared to graduate.

by Jenny Rowland, MD

I’m not a typical PennMed student.

I’m 31 years old, and I have three children (ages 6 years, 4 years, and 8 months).  Although I didn’t know that I wanted to become a doctor until later in life, my introduction to medicine began at an early age.  My Dad is an OB/GYN – so I grew up wearing scrubs for pajamas, drawing pictures in on-call rooms, and playing with empty syringes as bath toys.  I also saw a more personal side of medicine.

When I was four years old, my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, which meant that I also grew up with a Mom who had a mastectomy and who often preferred to walk around bald instead of wearing an uncomfortable wig, hat, or scarf.  When I was 18-years-old, my Mom lost her battle to breast cancer in my very arms, on the day of my high school graduation.  A couple years later, I learned that, I, too, am at high-risk for developing breast cancer.

By the time I realized that I wanted to become a doctor, there was an entire list of reasons not to pursue medicine:

  • The path would be hard.  I wanted to have children, and because of my own breast cancer risk, my doctors advised me to have children soon.  And, because of my husband’s career, I was already committed to living in Wilmington, DE, so it would mean commuting at least two hours every day just to get to and from school – and that was only if I got accepted to a school in Philadelphia.
  • The path would be long.  I was already 23 years old, and it would mean starting over.  I would have to attend a Post-Bac program before I even started my 10 years of training.
  • The path would be expensive.  It would require that I forfeit my immediate earning potential in favor of massive loans for school and childcare costs.
  • The path would be exhausting.  It would mean a lot of late night studying and unpredictable hours in the hospital.
  • The road would require sacrifices.  Not just for me, but also for my husband- and my future children.  Our little townhouse would have to be home for many more years than we’d hoped.  There would be a lot of unmade beds, unfolded laundry, dirty dishes, and pizza.  I wouldn’t be the Classroom Mom — the other moms might not even know who I am.
  • The road would be uncertain.  There were no guarantees that it would all work out, and certainly no guarantees that it would work out in the way that I wanted.

In spite of all of this, I chose to become a doctor for the simple reason that it was what I truly wanted to be.

The road to becoming a doctor has been long and hard.  There were times I only slept a couple hours.  There were nights I slept on a friend’s couch in Philly and didn’t see my family for two days.  There were moments I thought I was going to fail.  There was a lot of pizza.  And yet, as graduation nears, I know the road has been worth it.  When I hear my daughters acknowledge their own future career paths, they often say: “I want to be a princess, a doctor, and a Mom.”  And what I love about their response is not that they might follow in my footsteps one day, but rather, that they already know that all roads are possible.

Jenny Rowland recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

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  • Emelia

    Thank you for thoughts. It is truly inspirational for me as I am about to start medical school this year with two young daughters and a hope to have at least one while in medical school and another while in residency. Although I know the road will be difficult and that I will have to rely on my significant other to pick up a lot of the slack, your story has enabled me to know that anything is possible.

  • Angela Keen

    This is so true! The road to becoming a physician is getting more challenging. There are so many things a new physician faces beyond what they’ve learned in residency and fellowship. I recruit and hire physicians at a major hospital in Honolulu. I see this with every physician candidate who applies for a position. We have a lot of heart to heart talks about this. There are so many things a physician needs to know but doesn’t learn in residency and fellowship. How to balance a personal life, how to have children and survive a full time practice, dealing with accounting and finance, or just simply how to prepare for and win the big interview.
    It takes determination/tenacity, a great support system and a willingness to seek out the sources and advocates who are willing to help you.

    Honolulu, HI

  • Juan

    Great testimony by Jenny. Congratulations!!!!
    Jenny, I’m a Doc, from Spain, and I only would like to tell you that every time I can help a patient, that is to say, a human being, I feel it was worth to be a doctor.

  • DialDoctors

    Jenny, this is truly inspirational. The strive, determination and passion you have had through out this long road that is becoming a doctor is admirable. The sacrifices you have made by giving up sleep hours, quality time with your family, and plenty more are things that many people would not give up. You have a calling and you contribute to the health of patients daily. We congratulate you on your upcoming graduation. Your story is definitely uplifting and enlightening. And giving us all a live example of how following your dreams come with sacrifices and may come with roads that are long and difficult, but in the end its all worth it.

  • Jim deMaine, MD

    Thanks for the inspirational comments. I preceded you from Penn Med (1964) at which time we had 5 women in our class, none had children, and all were ground breakers in advancing the role of women in medicine. I spent my childhood making house-calls with my GP father, peeking into his doctor’s bag, and smelling the ether in the air during hospital rounds.

    You’ve pointed out that medicine is a calling to the idealist in our natures. Please don’t let the “business of medicine” get in the way of a fruitful and enjoyable career. Your children are blessed to understand that anything is possible.

  • drdarrellwhite

    My class at UVM (1986) I believe was the first med school class to have equal numbers of men and women. The average age was 26 in year one. The class was sprinkled with 30-somethings, the oldest 38. Everyone (who is healthy) is still actively practicing medicine now as we approach our 25th Reunion. It was hard enough at 22 to handle the rigors of med school and the challenges of what career path to follow and why.

    I STILL don’t know how my older classmates did it. What I remember is their passion, that they never asked for any special accommodations, that they were part of the “team”. I wish I’d had more perspective then so that I’d known to look up to them more.

    Congrats and best of luck.

  • Dr Sam Girgis

    The road to becoming a doctor is very difficult and challenging. I believe that someone is either born to do this job, or they are not. It takes a unique individual with many different characteristics and skills. Most of all, it take an enormous amount of determination. So much determination, that the medical student has to be hardheaded and stubborn so that they will not give up and continue on in their educational and training process. The ultimate result is a great one. I could not see myself doing anything else in life.

    Dr Sam Girgis

  • Martin Young

    Clearly you have what it takes, the toughness I wrote about a few days ago on this blog.

    I just know you will be successful – good luck!!

  • MD

    It is a long and difficult path that eventually leads to a rewarding career in many ways. The bureaucrats can only take so much from us, but they can not take the actual practice of medicine from us.

  • Kristin

    Thanks for sharing this–I’m in a similar position and it’s pretty daunting to think about the years ahead. I don’t know how well I’ll handle the sleep loss; I know if I want kids it will have to happen during med school and/or residency. For me, it all comes down to motivation–and I’m motivated enough so far to stick with the post-bac work, so we’ll see how applications go.

  • premed-musician

    Thanks for sharing your story! I am 23 yrs. old and have just recently began my post-bac premed training. Like you, I can think of many reasons not to pursue medicine, including having children, but the bottom line is, there is nothing else I would rather do with my life. I wish you the best!