Renee decided to become a nurse and then she advanced to become a very successful nurse educator. But she had something in her gut telling her that medicine was what she really wanted to do so she did apply at 53 years old. It was definitely not a smooth ride for her having rejected the first time and having taken the MCAT multiple times, not to mention, the physical barriers she had to hurdle. However, Renee knew she was going to find her place in medical school which she did eventually (she is now 54). Listen to this beautiful story of hardship, triumphs, and overcoming the odds.
[02:10] The Stereotype of Physicians Being All Male
During her middle school and high school years, Renee was always signing up for the science fair and would come up with different experiments. Aside from her interest in science, she knew she wanted to become a doctor because of the fact that her grandfather was having some health issues, diabetes specifically, and having witnessed how they helped him manage his chronic illness.
Although she really wanted to be a physician, Renee has been raised in a rural community where there were no female physicians in the whole county. After a conversation with her dad, they agreed on her taking up nursing, which was pretty much suggested to her that it was the only the option she had.
At that time, she was also engaged to her high school sweetheart, who is her husband now. At that point, she was committed to becoming a nurse knowing that once she got married, she was literally on her own. So she jumped in the bandwagon and decided to make the best out of the situation including getting great grades in nursing school. Once Renee started working as a nurse, she began seeing female physicians trickling in from the big cities.
[09:22] Family First
Renee wanted to advance after about ten years of being a nurse so she went to a nurse practitioner school as the next closest thing to being a physician. After being a nurse practitioner for 15 months, she realized family nurse practitioner was not the area she wanted as she wanted to do something related to obstetrics. However, she didn't want to move considering her family was already rooted in their community so she was limited with her choices.
Ten years later, she got into the academia and pursued her PhD. Each step she basically took was to have insurance for her family, pay the bills, and have a job that allowed her to do that. In short, all her career decisions were based on her family, not with what she really wanted to do.
Her kids knowing their mom always wanted to become a physician, her son eventually encouraged her to sign up for prereqs courses to see if she still wanted to pursue medicine. Renee initially thought it was a crazy idea having moved their family from Kentucky to Texas so she didn't want them to think she was wishy-washy about her profession. So she did take the classes (along with her kids) and then she began applying to med school never thinking she would actually get in given her perceived barriers but she continued on until finally getting there.
[13:30] Financial Implications
Leaving her community was one reason that kept her from applying to med school, but money was always another factor. She was worried about living off with one income which they've never done before. The solution when her two kids left the house. Being an empty-nester, it's just her and her husband now. Renee realized it wasn't going to be a big deal to live practical which they've done ever since and being in debt was nothing new either. In fact, she's still paying for her PhD until now. So she really didn't think finances would be a big problem.
What encouraged her to really apply to medical school was after talking with physicians who told her she will be able to pay everything back after residency once she's making her income.
[15:35] Taking the Prereqs Classes
Renee apparently took her prereqs classes with her kids in the same school that she was a nurse educator at. Their family basically moved from Kentucky to Texas because of the free tuition her kids can get being an educator. (This is actually a law in Texas.)
Her kids loved that she was taking classes with them although the other kids in the class didn't actually know they were related. And her kids got better grades than she did as well.
Taking these kinds of classes after a long time, Renee would describe it as a thrilling experience because it was an opportunity for her to see if she could advance to the level she was looking to advance to. So she took it as a challenge and found it as a really exciting time, being one more step to the next thing.
One of her challenges was her age being 50+ years old so she had to have a little talk with herself that it's okay if they're kind of leaving you out. Renee says the feeling that you're not going to fit in eventually goes away once you have relationships with others and you showed them respect, they show you respect, and you learn from each other.
[19:10] The MCAT Experience and Prep Courses
Thinking she has already taken standardized tests before, she was going to approach it like she had done it before. Obviously, that did not work out well for her until she took a Kaplan course. Renee actually took the MCAT five times and it was a real pressure on her confidence, being an analytical thinker and wanting to read every word and look at every answer choice. As a result, she never finished the passages most of the time because she was really slow.
She had to get over the fact that while her MCAT score is not great, there are a lot of other things about her on her application that were really good. You don't have to be the 100% package when you apply to med school. So she tells people today to cultivate the things you're really good at and the things you're below-average on, explain those away and tell why you had below-average on that. Renee pretty much had to explain why she took the MCAT five times in her interviews and she still got in.
So what happened the first four times she took the MCAT? Renee recalls not having been able to put in as much study time as she should have done. And that very last time she took the MCAT, she was in a different city. Having new surroundings and taking a Kaplan course, she simply had a brand new mindset by the fifth time she took it and got the score she needed.
Although she took an online Princeton review the first or second time, the Kaplan course she took for her fifth time was on SAT. That made the difference for her because she got a more personal experience.
[24:00] The Personal Statement
Renee was a published author so she thought writing her personal statement was not a big deal. But during her interview, the doctor who interviewed her offered to help her with her personal statement if she didn't get in that time. Renee got on the waitlist so she had to send it back in and update it. So she met up with the interviewer and taught her a way to writer her personal statement in way that it was quick and straight to the point. She pulled out the most important things and they both agreed on the things she wanted to highlight. Renee emphasized that getting advice from the school that you're wanting to go to, from either the admissions committee or someone that is affiliated with that, is a really good idea because they'll tell you what they're looking for.
Renee ended up applying twice. She got no interviews the first time. The second time she applied was when she got a better MCAT score and that's how she got the interview.
[26:18] Factors for Choosing Schools and Finding Your Place
Renee basically had two major considerations in choosing which schools to apply to. First, Renee and her husband wanted to stay in Texas, plus the fact that you can actually apply to all schools in Texas for one price. She didn't apply to any school out of state. If she had to move a little bit, then she would as long it wasn't anything drastic since they have a daughter who still lives with them. Consequently, Renee applied through the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service as well as to Baylor College through the AMCAS application.
Having applied to a medical school where she was one of the professors in their College of Nursing, her colleagues were asking her about her wait list status but of course she didn't have any clue. April came and she was still waiting. At that point, she lost a lot of confidence, not having pre-matched and still being on the waiting list. For her, that was her only interview and that was a one in a million shot to be able to get in. Then she got a phone call from a very familiar voice who turned out to be the Dean of Admissions whom she has spoken with a few times to get his input on her application. They finally offered her a position in the College of Medicine and Renee was just crying (and even up to this moment) and she told him she was going to make them proud.
Renee was pretty high on the waitlist and she thought the interview was what made the difference knowing that from the very beginning, they take the best of the best. Moreover, being a nontraditional student, you bring something to the class that they need. As for Renee, she finally found her place, in the last two years, of where she fits in. She was something needed for this class and it was more than just being the mother in the group.
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[31:40] The Interview Experience
The medical school obviously saw something in Renee that fit in the class they were trying to build. That was what helped her get in the class. They needed that particular thing in the class. She filled that role and she's taking it seriously.
During interview, Renee was challenged with the question around what if she didn't get in. And although she knew this was going to be asked to every student and that the stock answer was to reapply, she answered it differently. She said she had a Plan B which was to walk back over the hall and continue to work in the College of Nursing. So it's a good trade off. Either way, she would win.
Other questions she got were what her goal was in the class and what she hoped to bring to the class. This was a time when the doctor involved in the Ebola virus scare came back to the U.S. and became a beacon of light for the others. To be that kind of person was Renee's goal and she shared this with her interviewer. One of the two interviewers who was the Dean of Student Affairs was also a parent so they really bonded on the issue of having kids while being in medical school. Renee took this as an opportunity for them to guide her.
[35:50] The Medical School Experience
As a medical student now, this was basically everything she hoped and dreamed for. For some days that she would think she can't do it, she would just take a step back and tell herself today's just going to be like yesterday and she got through it. Some days are better than others and some days are just awful. But most days are doable and she'd still do it with a smile on her face because she feels very fortunate to be where she is right now having had that one interview. Was she really supposed to there? She thought yes. And she thought about not wanting to disrespect all the other people who didn't get in.
Renee says the hardest part for her is being challenged physically of being 54 and having chronic illnesses. Renee has a common variable immune deficiency, also known as CVID, and has been taking IV immunoglobulins every four weeks. The nurse had to come to her house which would take them a full day. She would equate this to chemotherapy in the way it makes her feel bad every four weeks. But she just changed her medications through the subcutaneous route, which is administered every two weeks and which she can do it on her own now.
Renee can't recall relaying her chronic illness on her personal statement because she has just been diagnosed recently and it wasn't something she felt comfortable talking about.
[39:27] The Future of Being a Physician and Handling Biases
Renee sees herself in the OB/GYN, which was what she did first as a nurse, being a labor room delivery nurse. Then she worked in nursery, postpartum, and post-surgery for women so she has always seen herself in that role of an OB/GYN. Renee seeks to be able to combine these two careers philosophically in her mind which is very possible. She is interested in the centering pregnancy and would like to explore it as well as the idea of exploring maternal-fetal medicine considering her interest in high risk pregnancy.
In terms of handling the biases, Renee thinks her qualities would make her a stronger applicant because residency pools are small and they need a variety of students so they're going to need people with a wide variety of experiences in order to have the best team. So she thinks this would be to her advantage given her experience. She simply sees herself working until the end and burnout is not going to be an issue for her either.
[42:55] Final Words of Wisdom
Don't compare yourself to the younger ones because you're not in the same category. Talk to a lot of other people who have been in your shoes and are trying to pursue things with barriers in the way. You can't just turn in the application and expect to get interviews. You have to figure out how to work around some biases. Lastly, make sure you have the support, both financially and emotionally, because this is a daily grind.
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Dr. Ryan Gray: The Premed Years, session number 229.
Hello and welcome to the two-time Academy Award nominated podcast, The Premed Years, where we believe that collaboration, not competition, is key to your success. I am your host Dr. Ryan Gray, and in this podcast we share with you stories, encouragement, and information that you need to know to help guide you on your path to becoming a physician.
Welcome to The Premed Years Podcast, I am so excited for today's guest, but before I jump into that I want to thank Cram Fighter for being a sponsor here at The Premed Years. Now if you listen to last week's episode you heard me talk a little bit about Cram Fighter, and what they are, and what they aren't. And Cram Fighter is there for you as you begin your MCAT prep to set a schedule specifically for you based on your timeline and your needs, and more specifically based on the materials that you want to study from. Stay tuned until the middle of the episode, I'll have a little bit more to talk about then.
Alright so our guest today is a guest that- this type of story is why I set out to create The Premed Years Podcast, and originally we were called the Medical School Headquarters Podcast. I wanted stories like Renee's of hardship, and triumph, and overcoming the odds. And as a 53-year old applicant to medical school, a re-applicant to medical school, and needing to take the MCAT many times as you'll hear, she overcame and is now a medical student. So without further ado, let's say hello to Renee.
Renee, welcome to The Premed Years, thanks for joining me.
Renee Ridley: Thank you, Dr. Ryan.
Meeting Medical Student Renee
Dr. Ryan Gray: Tell me when did you- actually let's switch this question around a little bit. At what age did you finally realize you wanted to be a doctor?
Renee Ridley: Well that started really young for me because at some point during my middle school and high school years, I was the one that was always signing up for the science fair, and I had a very close friend that also would join me and we would come up with all these experiments and different things and ways to make things work in the science world. And so I took a few courses in high school- now mind you this was in the 1970's I went to high school because I was born in the '60s, and I took anatomy, physiology, those kinds of things, and I thought, ‘I really like this content.' So another thing that really kind of made me think, ‘I really think medicine might be it,' is my grandfather lived right beside us and he had diabetes, was on insulin, it was back in the day when you really didn't go to the doctor for emergencies. But one time my grandmother had given him like double the dose of insulin, and so it was kind of an emergent situation to keep him from having really, really low blood sugar, so we called the physician. And now I'm a teenager at this point and asked what we should do. Well normally in today's world you would have took him to the hospital and they would have given some glucose, but our instructions were by phone, and these were doctors that still made house calls. So it really kind of was in a world of he had a chronic illness, and we were always there to help manage his chronic illness. So that was always interesting to me, so I think early on I had a love for taking care of people.
Dr. Ryan Gray: But that wasn't the path that you took. You went into nursing.
Renee Ridley: I did, yeah.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Now talk about the reasons behind that, and then we'll dive in some more with that.
Going Into Nursing
Renee Ridley: Okay I get this question a lot, and people say, ‘Well why didn't you do it when you were young?' because I'm 54 now. And the answer is I was raised in a rural community, there were no female physicians in our whole county, I just knew that I wanted to be a doctor but when I got to the age of eighteen, and I was trying to figure out, ‘Where am I going to go to college? Where am I going to sign up?' In having the discussion with my father who was ultimately going to be supporting me for that education, he said, “Well let's think about this.” He said, “We have a local college down the road called Murray State University down in Kentucky,” and he said, “It's relatively a good idea if you be a nurse.” Because me being a female, and I had been exposed to nurses pretty much my whole life because I'd had asthma and different things, so I had seen nurses, I knew a little bit about what they did, but it was pretty much suggested to me that that was pretty much the only option because I also had an engagement ring on my finger and wanted to get married at age nineteen. Again this is a rural community, that's just what you did. I married my high school sweetheart, we've still been together 35 years later, he's very supportive of me. So going right into nursing, I remember at Murray State registering on the last day that you had to register before the semester started the following day, and I really just told the lady, “I'm signing up for nursing classes, it's not really what I want to do, I would love to do premed,” and they said, “Well are you going to do it or not?” And I said, “Well I guess I'll be a nurse.” So I committed to it at that point, and knew that once we got married I was on my own literally. So it was one of those you jump into it, you dive in head first and you think, ‘Okay I'm going to make the best of this situation,' and I did. One of my goals was to make all A's so that I'd get scholarships and be able to pay for my tuition because again, here I am at nineteen, my dad's not really thrilled about me getting married that early, but I wanted to make it work so I was like, ‘Yeah I'll do the best I can.' So as a result I ended up with really, really good grades in nursing school so that was to my advantage for later once I did get into med school.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah it's interesting you mentioned obviously the time that you grew up, the people around you with not having female physicians around you, and in the sixties and seventies the percentage of female physicians was a lot lower than it is now. And it's funny, fast forward to this day in age, and I'll have a guest on who's a Latina female or male, or an African American male or female, and they kind of have that same story right now because they don't see physicians that look like them or speak like them, and they're running into those same problems of, ‘Well I don't see an African American male physician out there, so I guess I can't be a doctor because there are none out there.' So it's interesting how that story is still playing out today, just in a different way.
Renee Ridley: Yes it is, and kind of looking back as you said, I actually lived in a county, a small city called Hardin, Kentucky, and that was the county that did not have the female physicians, but once I started working as a nurse I started seeing one, two, three female physicians trickling in, but they had trickled in from the big cities. We were from the western part of Kentucky which is rural versus Louisville or Lexington, those were the big hubs in Kentucky. So I think just where you were located at that time. I graduated high school in 1981, so if you were not able or had the support to move to one of the big cities, then you weren't going to go to medical school. I think that was one of the reasons that my father did not encourage it, because he knew that once I moved at the age of eighteen to Louisville or Lexington or perhaps Nashville in a different city, that maybe I wouldn't be back. So that whole culture is totally different now I think, because being 54 I've had two children that have been empty nesters, and one of them lives in Kentucky and I live in Texas, so it's a different world now.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. So you go on, you have it sounds like a successful career as a student studying nursing, and you go on to be a nurse, and looking at your resume you've had a very successful career as a nurse, but now you're in medical school. Why- we heard the story about why you didn't go into nursing originally, but at the age of 54 now, why didn't you try to become a physician earlier?
Deciding to Take the Leap to Become a Physician
Renee Ridley: After about ten years of being a nurse, I wanted to advance. And so at that time, my kids were pretty young, and I was encouraged to go to nurse practitioner school. So that was going to be the next closest thing to being a physician, so I did that. It was like fifteen months becoming a nurse practitioner. It really was not in the area that I wanted it to be, it was family nurse practitioner, I really wanted to do something in obstetrics, but again not wanting to move because my family was already rooted in that community I was limited in what my choices were. So I did that, and then ten years later I got into academia and so I was pretty much encouraged to pursue my PhD. So each step that I took was pretty much to either have insurance for my family, pay the bills, be there for my family, have a job that allowed me to do that. So as I grew as a parent, a mother, a wife, then pretty much my career decisions were all based on that. They really didn't have a lot to do with what did I want to do. They were more or less what could make things better for the family?
Dr. Ryan Gray: Do you remember ever having those conversations with your husband or with your kids about, ‘You know I'd really like to be a doctor, but I know we need to live here, I need to provide,' or did you just have that conversation in your own head?
Renee Ridley: Absolutely we did. No it was absolutely my husband and I talked about it from- I was fifteen when I met him, and we talked about it from the age of fifteen on until now, and he knew that's what I wanted to do. My kids grew up knowing that I was a nurse, and that I was a busy person, but a lot of times they grew up saying, ‘We always thought you wanted to be a doctor. You've mentioned that before. Why didn't you do it?' So I would share with them some of the barriers for why I never got there, but it was my son who's now thirty, was the one who encouraged me when we were down in Corpus Christi, I was teaching as a professor down there, and he said, “Hey Mom, I've got a great idea. Why don't you sign up for classes? We'll take organic chemistry, or physics, or something like that that are pre-req's for med school, and you can see if you're able to do that, and if you would like to pursue medicine.” And so I was like, ‘Wow this is a crazy idea, of course.' Because I'd finished my PhD in 2008, and I was in academia, and I thought, ‘Oh wow here I am down in Texas, I was in Kentucky forever, and I've moved my family to Texas,' and I didn't want anyone to think I was wishy-washy about my profession at that point. And so I said, “Okay yeah I'll take classes with you guys.” And so I took one with Ron, and one with Robin, and the next semester I did the same thing, and it turned out to be a really, really good experience to take those pre-req courses. And then after they were all finished I was like, ‘Well okay I think it's time to apply to med school and see what happens.' And you know, never thinking that I would actually get in. You know because you have so many other barriers that come up that you're like, ‘I'm just never going to get there, but I'm going to try.' You just continue and continue until you're just there finally.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. So I want to dive into the whole premed path and applying to schools, but I'm interested to know from being successful at academia, teaching nursing, the financial implications of leaving a career and then going into medical school, and accruing debt as a medical student, and then working as a cheap resident, or a poor resident. How much did that weigh into your decision to pursue medicine?
The Debt Aspect of Medical School as a Nontrad
Renee Ridley: Well I had talked to physicians who I knew they would know the answer to this, and I said- that was hugely something that kept me from wanting to do it. I've just mentioned already that leaving my community and moving my family was one reason, but money was always the other reason. It was always like, ‘Well I don't really have the money to do this, and if I stop my career then we're going to be living off of one income which we had never done before.' And so I guess the solution kind of came when both my kids left the house because I'm an empty nester now, I have one that got married five years ago and one that got married a month ago. And so I guess that answer came to me that, ‘Hey it's just you and your husband now, so how much money can a person really spend?' We've always been pretty practical with our money. We don't spend it a lot, we don't have a lot of nice things, we just don't value that. And so it wasn't really going to be a big deal for us to continue to live like that, and being in debt was nothing new because like each time that I would have to go back and get a second and a third degree, I'd have to borrow money for that, and I'm still paying on my PhD now as we speak. So I didn't really see that going to financial aid and saying, ‘Yes this is what I need for medical school,' I didn't think that would be a big problem and the doctors that I talked to said the same thing. They said, “Once you get finished and you're out on your own after your residency, and you're making your income, you will pay that back in no time.” And I was told that by several physicians, or I wouldn't have done it.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah I would put an asterisk on that. You can pay it back in no time if you're responsible with your money. It's very easy to live up to your income.
Renee Ridley: Absolutely. Yeah.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay so you took these classes with your kids it sounds like?
Taking Pre-Requisites with Her Kids
Renee Ridley: I did, the pre-requisites of course. I had a Bachelor's, a Master's, and a PhD so the filler classes like the organic chemistry, the physics, the gen chem; those had to be taken and so we were down in Corpus Christi at Texas A&M where I was a professor. And the reason I came to Texas was because I could get free tuition for them because I was a nurse educator. They passed a law that said that my kids could get free tuition because I was an educator so I was like, ‘Well that's frugal with your money, so that's what I'm going to do.' So that's why we went there, one of the reasons. I liked it there too, that was another reason. And so yeah, I was in my office, and then I would tell my colleagues, “Okay it's time for me to go to my class and my lab, and I'll see you guys later.” So I had it on my schedule, you know? And I had already talked to my boss about it, so my kids loved it because the kids in the class did not know that we were related, we wouldn't sit together, and of course in the lab we would have arguments and people would think, ‘Wow they don't get along,' you know? But it was always kind of a competitive experiment like at home.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So here's the biggest question; who got better grades?
Renee Ridley: Definitely my son.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Oh really?
Renee Ridley: Which he's now in engineering, I just didn't have that kind of mind.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. What was it like to go back and take classes after so many years off of being a student yourself for those types of classes? Obviously PhD classes you were taking, and the NP stuff, so a little different.
Renee Ridley: Yeah it is a lot different. It's back to that same undergrad large class, 200 people in a class, some are taking it seriously and some are not, and it was thrilling to me because it was an opportunity for me to see if I could advance to the level that I was looking to advance to. So I saw it as a challenge, and just a new spirit, and it was always something that I did not do with dread; I did it with excitement, and still to this day. I mean when I'm having to do a class, or if I'm studying for something big, like right now I'm studying for Step, it's an exciting time for me. Just one more step to the next thing.
Struggles of Being an Undergrad Again
Dr. Ryan Gray: Were there any struggles getting back into that mindset of being an undergrad student again?
Renee Ridley: The struggle I think for me was I obviously don't look like everybody else. Nobody else in the class is 50-something years old, and so you kind of have to have a little talk with yourself and say it's okay when the professor says, ‘Oh you guys are all too young to remember this,' and you're obviously older than the professor. So you feel like they're just kind of leaving you out. You're going to have times like that. That actually happened to me today, somebody thought I was their professor, and I'm one of them. And so the feeling like you're not going to fit in eventually goes away once you have relationships with others, and you show them respect, they show you respect, and you learn from each other really.
Taking the MCAT Multiple Times
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. As you progress through those pre-req's that you had to do, talk about working as an educator, and studying for the MCAT, and finding time to do that. How did the MCAT treat you?
Renee Ridley: You know I had taken standardized tests before, and so I thought, ‘Okay I'll kind of approach it like I had done before.' Well it obviously did not work out very well for me.
Dr. Ryan Gray: That doesn't work, yeah.
Renee Ridley: It didn't work out. And I was trying to listen to all the others, and they had different opinions about how they wanted to do things, and I had my own opinion. And so it really didn't work out until I took a Kaplan course, and so I thought, ‘I'm finally going to do this.' But the first few times I took the MCAT, which I took it five times, it was a real crusher on the confidence, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that I'm such an analytical thinker at this level, and I really wanted to read every word, and look at every answer choice, and most of the time I never finished the passages because of that, I was really slow. And so I had to get over that fact that, ‘Hey your MCAT score is not going to be that great,' but I had a lot of other things about me on my application that were really, really good. And so I had to kind of tell myself that it's okay, you don't have to be the 100% package when you apply to med school, and I think that's what I tell people today is cultivate the things that you are really, really good at, and things that you're maybe below average on, explain those away and tell why you had below average on that.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah.
Renee Ridley: And I could do that pretty much with my five times, I had to explain that in my interviews, and I still got in.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah, so explain that. So five times. Obviously approaching it like a standardized test, I think if somebody's listening to me and has listened to this podcast, they know that that won't work. So you did it once and you were like, ‘Whoa okay, now I know that that doesn't work.' What happened the other three times following that that you still didn't click?
Renee Ridley: I apparently was not ever changing anything because I was getting the same score pretty much within a couple points each time the first four times. And I was looking at it as kind of a checklist thing, you know? Let's get this done. And obviously I was on the tenure track so I was pretty busy, and the study time that I put into it probably was not what I should have done, and so that very last time I was in a different city. I had moved from Corpus Christi, I'd come to Bryan College Station and I had new surroundings, everybody's like, ‘Take a Kaplan course. The statistics are if you do this then you'll do better.' And so I just kind of did that. I had a brand new mindset by the fifth time, and I was able to get the score that I needed to be able to be an applicant. So the first four times were not there, but the fifth time it was like, ‘Okay now I've done that, so let's check that off.'
Dr. Ryan Gray: So the prior- the first four times you didn't take any sort of prep course at all?
Renee Ridley: I did take a Princeton Review prep course for- I think it was the first, maybe the second time, I think it was the first actually. But it was one of the online prep courses, and the Kaplan course I took between the fourth and fifth time was on site. So I think for me it was the difference because the person that was the on-site instructor, she kind of would stay after hours and answer questions, and it just seemed to be more of a personal experience than the other. And so yeah.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. I think with the online courses it's very easy to go astray because there's somebody not there right in front of you holding you accountable.
Renee Ridley: Yeah. I felt a little lost in the mix.
Dr. Ryan Gray: It really depends on the person. Some people flourish in an online course and don't like it in-person, and some people it's the reverse. So I'm glad the fifth time you were able to figure it out and work on that.
Renee Ridley: Yes sir. It was not my detriment, I was not going to let it be.
Dr. Ryan Gray: That's great. So you finally get the score you want and you say, ‘Okay I'm ready to apply.' You have- and a lot of nontraditional students listening to this right now have a full life of experiences that have led them to this path. And the personal statement seems to be a huge obstacle when it comes to applying, because how do you squeeze your whole life into 5,300 characters? Talk about the personal statement and how you chose to approach that.
Approaching the Personal Statement as a Nontraditional Student
Renee Ridley: That's a really good question. When I wrote my personal statement I was a published author so I thought, ‘Okay this is really no big deal. I can do this. I'm going to give the one or two page, whatever it is characters.' And you think, ‘Okay yeah I've got my intro, my three points, and a poem kind of written up.' But after it was brought to my attention when I interviewed, the doctor that interviewed me said, “How about if you don't get in this time, that you send me your personal statement and let's work on that together.” And so I was like, ‘Oh wow, okay she's offering.' She gave me her card, and so I actually got on the wait list here at Texas A&M. And so I knew, ‘Hey I'm on the wait list, and I have to send it back in and update it.' And so I'm thinking, ‘I've got to call her, and see if we can set up a meeting time, and she what she suggests.' So I did that, and she was very cordial, she took me in and she said, “Okay here's the main thing. Most of the people on these interview committees, they are very busy people. Most of them are physicians, they don't want a lot of words. They want to know in the first few sentences what your main highlights are.” And so she taught me a way to do that that was very quick and to the point, and she basically pulled out the things for me that she thought was the most important, and we agreed that those were the things that we wanted to highlight. But I think getting advice from the school that you're wanting to go to from either their admissions committee, or someone that is affiliated with that, is a really good idea because they'll tell you what they're looking for.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So did you end up applying twice?
Renee Ridley: I did. The first time I applied I got no interviews, and the second time that I applied, that was actually when my score went up for MCAT, and so that's why I got the interview for that was because that score had went up.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay, interesting. How did you determine as a nontraditional student, how did you determine where you wanted to apply to schools?
Renee Ridley: Of course my husband and I wanted to stay local in Texas. I of course liked the fact that you could apply to all schools in Texas for one price, so that's basically what I did. I applied to all the schools in Texas and I did not apply to any out of state at all, and so it was basically we're here in Texas, if we have to move a little bit then we will, but we didn't want to move drastically because we have a daughter that still lives here, she's 27, and our son is in Kentucky now. So we didn't want to go too far.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah so you applied through the Texas Medical Dental Application Service?
Renee Ridley: Yes.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Did you also apply to Baylor through the AMCAS application?
Renee Ridley: I believe I did. I'm wanting to say that I did.
Gaining an Acceptance
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. So you finally get in. Talk about the day that you received that letter or phone call.
Renee Ridley: Oh yeah I'll never forget it because again, I was on the wait list. And I didn't really say this to you before, you didn't know this part, but I worked here in this college in the College of Nursing, I was one of the professors in the College of Nursing. And so it's like next door is the College of Medicine. So it's kind of like- my colleagues were like, “Well do you know how far down you are on the wait list?” I'm like, “No I don't know anything.” I mean you would think like maybe you work here, people would tell you something. No, it's all still hush hush, you don't know anything. So it's April and I'm thinking, ‘I'm still just waiting to hear something.' I think at that point you lose your confidence a whole lot because you didn't match, you didn't pre-match, you're still on the waiting list, and for me that was my only interview. And I'm thinking it's a one-in-a-million shot that I got in. So I'm thinking, ‘I'm not waiting for any phone calls.' And so I get a phone call and the voice was very familiar to me, it was Mr. Filo Maldonado, and he is the Dean of Admissions, and I had spoken with him a couple of times to get his input on my application and so I knew his voice right away. So I thought when he told me who he was, I was like, ‘This has got to be good news.' And so I just dropped what I was doing, I was actually in an Internet meeting with colleagues on something for the College of Nursing, and I just kind of dropped what I was doing and listened to his phone call and he was like, “We're happy to offer you a position in the College of Medicine,” and I was like- I was crying. And I told him, I said, “I'm sorry Mr. Maldonado I'm crying.” And it still brings me to tears now, and I told him, I said, “I'm going to make you proud,” and he said, “I know you will.” And so it was a really good day, it was a really good day because I think it was the first day off the wait list, so I must have been pretty high on the wait list, and it made me feel like maybe the interview had made a difference because I know that they take the best of the best in the beginning, and then the ones on the wait list, there's something about them that makes them important for the class. And I want to speak to the audience on this, being a nontraditional student, you bring something to the class that they need. And I found my place in the last two years of where I fit in. Something that was needed for this class, what every class needs. And somebody listening in might say, ‘Oh yeah you're the mother,' and I don't know that I would really call myself the mother of the group even though I have children and I'm the oldest female in the group, it's a lot more to it than that. It's just something that- and my colleagues are great. They'll still say, “We can't imagine the class with you, Renee.” And that makes me feel so good. I knew that this was my place, this was where I was supposed to be.
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I love how you put that about bringing something to the class, because that's how I try to convey to students when I talk about the interview, and talking to the person interviewing you about why they should accept you, and your skills, and trying to relate it to those unique things about you that you can bring to the class, because that's what they're trying to do. They're trying to make a community of people there that are going to fit together, and they obviously saw something in you that would fit with the class that they were building.
Bringing Another Element to the Class
Renee Ridley: Yes and I tell people to this day- they'll say, “What do you think helped you get in?” I said that. They needed that particular thing about that in the class, and I filled that role. And so I take it seriously. It's just like the thirty years of experience I have in nursing, when it came time for our pre-clerkship, a bootcamp, we were learning skills; foley catheters, NGs, IVs, and I'm like, “Okay guys we're going to have a clinic at my house, we're all going to stick each other, this is off the record.” So we did that Sunday actually from 4:00 to 6:00 and everybody was like, “Oh wow, we love this, you can just teach us all these skills.” And I'm like why would I not do that?
Dr. Ryan Gray: How bruised up are you?
Renee Ridley: Oh I was the teacher, I was off hands for that.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Smart.
Renee Ridley: I had one person who stuck me, but everybody else stuck each other so it was great.
Dr. Ryan Gray: That's good. So Renee as you went through the interview, how many interviews did you have?
Renee Ridley: I had one interview.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay, it only takes one as you found out. So during the interview, and in your interview day you probably again stuck out like a sore thumb because you were the odd woman out.
Renee Ridley: Yes.
Dr. Ryan Gray: What types of questions did you get about being a nontraditional student, about your age, about your prior career? What sort of questions did they challenge you with?
Interviewing as a 54-Year-Old Applicant
Renee Ridley: He asked me, “What if you don't get in?” And I think they ask that to everybody and I've always heard the stock answer is, “I'm going to re-apply.”
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah.
Renee Ridley: Of course my answer was a little bit more detailed than that. I told him up front, I said, “I've got plan B. My plan B is to walk back over the hall and continue to work in the College of Nursing.” So I said, “It's a good trade-off. Either way, I win.” So we talked about that. Other things that we talked about was, “What do you hope your goal is to be in this class? What do you hope to bring?” And at that time, that was when the fellow- and I don't recall what this doctor's name was, but it was the one that was involved in the Ebola scare. And he came back to the US, and he was giving maybe some of his blood or whatever it was he was doing to try to help save the ones that had Ebola that also were sick. And I saw him as kind of a beacon of light for the others, kind of ‘we're going to be fine, we're going to do this.' And I said, “That's my goal right there, is to be that kind of person.” And it just- I shared that with him and the person that interviewed me- I had two people that interviewed me, but one of them was the Dean of Student Affairs, and he's a father like I am so we really bonded on that issue of, ‘What about your kids? And what are they going to think about all this? Are you going to have time for them?' So I asked him, I said, “How do you have time for yours? Tell me because I want to learn.” And so I kind of took it as an opportunity for them to guide me, and to say, “I want to be that person. I want to be that person that is your leader in the class because I know that age and experience is going to be a good quality to have.”
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah, that's a great way to spin it, so that's awesome. So you are in the process of being a medical student now. Is it everything that you hoped and dreamed for?
Renee Ridley: Absolutely. Every day when we're doing something that's challenging to me, and my peers are, “Okay let's do this together, here's our goals, and here's what we're going to do.” We do it together and some days I think, ‘I can't do it.' You know you tell yourself, ‘I just am so tired, or I can't do it,' but then you backtrack and you go, ‘No today's just going to be like yesterday. I got through it.' And some days are better than others, some days are really pretty awful, but most days are very doable and you just- I still do it with a smile on my face because I feel so fortunate to be here. I had one interview, and I'm older so I mean like you just look at it and you go, ‘Was I really supposed to be here?' And you just go, ‘Yeah you were supposed to be here.' And I think out of 4,000 applicants all the people that didn't get in. I think if I was not motivated every single day then I'm really kind of slapping them in the face and saying I'm not using this opportunity for what it's worth, and I wouldn't want to do that. I wouldn't want to disrespect the people that didn't get in.
Dr. Ryan Gray: What has been the hardest part for you?
Hardest Part of Medical School
Renee Ridley: Physical fatigue. I haven't shared this with you yet but I have a primary immunodeficiency. I have CVID which is common variable immunodeficiency, and up for the last two or three years I've been taking IV IG which is immunoglobulins. I take them every four weeks to replace what I don't make, and the nurse comes to my house, and it's an all day thing. I kind of equate it to chemotherapy because it makes you feel that bad every four weeks. But I've been now changed to the subq so now I'm going to start administering that every two weeks, and I don't require anybody to do it, I can do it on my own. And so I think the challenge- and that's not the only chronic illness I have. I think just the challenge physically of being 54 and having chronic illnesses is the hardest part for me. It's not the organization as a nurse, as a mother, I have the organizational skills down pat. It's just the some days just feeling like, ‘Wow this is a challenge physically.'
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. Did you relay this information in your personal statements during your applications in any way? Anything about your health?
Renee Ridley: I don't recall if I did or not, because at that time I don't remember it being something that was something that would really make a difference in my admission or not. I speak about it now because I feel more comfortable talking about it. I had just been diagnosed like recently, like whenever I applied, and so it wasn't something I really felt comfortable talking about.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay, interesting. Well I wish you the best with that, and thank you for sharing your story. I have a couple more questions before we wrap up. You've obviously lived a great life as a nurse, as a nurse practitioner, as a nurse educator. What are you hoping to get out of being a physician now? What do you see the future as?
What Renee’s Future Looks Like
Renee Ridley: My future is going to be in OBGYN, that's what I first did as a nurse, I was a labor and delivery nurse and we worked nursery, post-partum, and post-surgical for women. And I always see myself in that role of an OBGYN, but I also kind of combine it with what it was like as a nurse, and to combine those two careers philosophically in your mind is very possible. I'm very interested in centering pregnancy which is kind of going back to this group care where it's more financially a good idea. I don't know if it's really something I'm going to end up doing, but I would like to explore it. And I certainly like the idea of exploring maternal fetal medicine, because the high risk pregnancies are something I'm also interested in. So we're just going to have to wait and see how things go with the residencies because we start clerkships very soon, like in a few weeks. And so I'm going to be able to get out there and kind of see what's available, but at this point I'm really kind of set on OBGYN.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Are you concerned at all about- and I ask this because I get this question a lot, with your age wanting to go into a surgical sub-specialty. Are you concerned number one, for yourself being able to handle the rigors of a five year residency? And number two, some of the biases that may be out there from program directors looking at you not seriously because of your age?
Renee Ridley: Right, I have actually had my brother-in-law is an EMT plastic surgeon, and he posed that question to me when he heard. “Hey you want to get into OBGYN have you thought about this?” And he said that very same thing. It is something I've thought about, and the biases that I think I will get are going to be similar to what I think the admissions committees were probably discussing when I applied to school. So obviously it's something if I did get the interview and I would talk about it. I think the other qualities about me are something that's going to make me a stronger applicant because the residency pools, from what I understand, you have small groups of residents, you don't have really large groups, and you're going to need a variety of residents. You're not just going to need all the ones that look the same, or all 24 years old. You're going to need people that they have a wide variety of experiences in order to have the best team. And so I think probably that's going to be to my advantage because I've experienced some things that some of the younger ones have not. You know, what kind of career are you looking at? You know I really don't want to retire. I just see myself working until the end, whereas I have seen physicians to get burned out at a young age. I obviously am not going to get burned out because if I've been in nursing this long, healthcare and being around patients, it's not going to burn me out.
Words of Wisdom
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. So as we wrap up here, what words of wisdom do you have for another nontraditional student out there that is in their forties, or fifties, and doubting whether or not they can do it?
Renee Ridley: Don't compare yourself to the younger ones. You're not in the same category, it's not apples and apples, and you should talk to other people like myself who have been in your shoes, and who are trying to pursue things that there are barriers in the way. It's not going to be something that you just turn your application in and you expect all these interviews, they're not going to happen. And again, you're going to have some bias there and you have to figure out, ‘How do I work around that bias? And am I biased?' I have to think about that too, am I biased against the younger ones because they have some qualities that I don't have anymore. So those are all thoughts that you have to consider before you make that move. And also I think the best advice I can give you is make sure that you have the support, and I'm not just talking financial here, I'm talking about emotional support because it's a daily grind, and if you have a marriage that's not that great to begin with, then I wouldn't chance it. Having the kind of relationship that I have had with my husband, and my kids, and my parents, I was 100% supported in so many ways, so I knew that that would be a plus for me. So that's what I would say.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright Renee Ridley, medical student at Texas A&M. Taking the MCAT five times, re-applying to medical school, finding those mentors, finding that guidance, and making sure that this is what she wanted to do and getting there. So thank you Renee for taking the time to chat with us. I hope that you listening will find some inspiration, find some motivation from this episode, from hearing Renee as a 53-year old applicant to medical school, as somebody who went into nursing and was very successful as a nurse educator, but had something in her gut that kept telling her that medicine was really what she wanted to do. So I hope that if you're listening to this, and you are in something that you don't want to do, understand that there's still time to do what you want to do to fulfill your dreams and be a physician. So I hope you enjoyed this episode, I would love for you to share this with somebody who you think needs the message that Renee has. And until next week, have a great week, we'll see you next time here at The Premed Years Podcast.
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