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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