Last month I wrote about Alyssa, who I met once and whose story I was immediately inspired by. This month I’m writing about someone I’ve known all of my life, who, until I sat down with her recently, I hadn’t heard this entire story but rather bits and pieces.

Both stories, though, share a common message. There are people out there who, despite the naysayers (including their internal dialogue), decide to do something and it.

So because this story is important to who I am, I’ll first give some background.

As an adult, one of the things that I am most grateful for is my mindset that I have the ability to make positive changes that will improve my life. It provides me a foundational sense of optimism- things can always be better.

For example: don’t have enough money? Not a problem, I can figure out a way to make more. Don’t like certain things about my lifestyle? I can always make changes that will improve it.

A big reason that I believe this to be true is because of the attitude my mom has had: the ability that life’s problems are just a puzzle to solve and that if you want to do something, you just have to figure out a way to make it happen.

My mom, Cindy, grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, the oldest of 5 children. She was a good student, interested in English and music—specifically piano. As a senior in high school, she entered a competition to guest perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and won one spot. She remembers, as a child, seeing a student playing with the orchestra and thinking that she was going to do that too, someday. Perhaps that was an early sign of her attitude.

When it was time to go to college, she chose a relatively small college in the Midwest. It boasted a good liberal arts program and an extensive full credit study abroad.

She toyed with the idea of going to school for music but was encouraged, like many people and especially many people at that time, to get a degree that would lead to a stable job. She initially thought international affairs seemed interesting, but then moved toward English.   After college, she moved to Ann Arbor Michigan, got a master’s degree in English and subsequently found herself teaching English in high school.

During this time in her life, two things impacted her next steps. First, she had a great relationship with the students at the school and found herself being asked by the principal of her school to join parent teacher conferences, even for students that weren’t in her classroom.. She was interested in and excelled at being able to facilitate conversations about difficulties students were having in school and work toward a resolution with the family. Additionally, she was working at a crisis call center. When I asked her why she did this, she said “I don’t know, it wasn’t like a major decision I can remember having, I just wanted to do it.” Her role there was identifying what level of service the person calling needed, and if it wasn’t critical for them to talk to a licensed professional, she would talk through their problems with them.

During that time, as she was thinking about what her next steps would be, she was considering going to school for psychology. Her mother was a psychoanalyst and, because of that, there had been a community of psychoanalysts she knew growing up. She also found that a common thread in the things she enjoyed doing were identifying problems and working toward solutions with people.   For some reason, though, after exploring a few psychology programs, she didn’t feel like it was sticking.   She remembers having a thought one day where she simply thought “what about psychiatry?”

She didn’t know really know many people who were doctors and had never taken any science and math classes beyond the minimum in high school and college.   But it appealed to her to be the person who was actually involved in treatment- identifying the issue and working to make it better. One time, during this period, while visiting her in-laws, they had a friend over who was a physician. She remembers having a conversation with him where she asked: “so…how do you even go to medical school?”

At 25, when most people who would become doctors at that time were finishing medical school, she decided to enroll in science classes at University of Michigan to get pre-medical credits she needed to have to even apply to medical school. She took general and organic chemistry, physics, trigonometry, calculus—all of the things that as a non-math and science person sound totally terrifying.

She had a good friend who was an engineer who helped to tutor her and the rest of the content she just figured out on her own. She took it on as a personal challenge: it was less about- is this content fascinating me and more of “I’m sure I can figure this out, I just have to learn it”. While she was taking the pre-med classes, it’s interesting to note, she continued to work in the humanities, teaching writing classes at a smaller local college and teaching poetry at an elementary school.

To even GET into medical school was a three-year commitment—she had to take all of the prerequisite classes, then take the MCATS then apply to medical school. She and her husband moved back to Pittsburgh to be closer to family and so she had more of a choice of medical schools to apply to that would be in-state tuition.

She was accepted into University of Pittsburgh and learned that she liked medical school- she liked learning and doing different rotations- most of which were in pediatrics, so she thought she wanted to be a pediatric psychiatrist.

She had her first child while in medical school and took a few months off which delayed the time she graduated. Before going back after having a baby, she went to the dean of students because she felt overwhelmed by the thought of continuing such an intensive program while being a new mom. The dean of students told her “you’ll be a doctor your whole life, but you’ll only have a baby for a short time”. So she took off another month or so.

After medical school she ended up starting a residency in child psychiatry and then transferring to a family medicine program, in which she also did a family therapy training. She found herself liking the family therapy platform: that if someone is having a physical or emotional problem, the family is intertwined. Similarly to her role in the high school several years earlier, she found she liked meeting with and working through issues with the whole family.

That explains where she ultimately ended up landing in medicine- in geriatrics.   Geriatrics, care for elderly people, was a relatively new specialty at the time, and she was in one of the first rounds of people who took the exam. She liked that geriatrics takes a whole person approach: you get to see the person as who they were when they were younger and who they are now and get to meet and work with the whole family. A lot of the work she did with patients was actually helping the families adjust to new environments and learning to understand behaviors in different ways.

She remembers one time a woman approached her in a coffee shop and said “I don’t know if you remember me, but my dad was your patient.” She had helped to identify which medicines were working and which were duplicative or unnecessary and had met with the family to understand and adapt to new behaviors. “Thank you,” the woman had said, “You gave us our dad back for a few extra good years.”

In her career she was also able to incorporate her love of writing and stories- at one point she had a newspaper article in the local Pittsburgh newspaper called “Dear Dr. Cynthia” that answered advice questions about aging and elderly people and she had a radio show called “Senior Talk” where she talked to geriatric specialists and interviewed a guest elderly person about his/her life.

“I really like all of the experiences I’ve had”, she told me,“I don’t regret my path one bit.”

It was interesting for me to sit down with my mom and hear her tell this story because, even though I’ve heard bits and pieces of it throughout my life, hearing it told as a narrative helped me to understand that the gift my mom gave me is the ability to think that you can learn and do anything, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to take the next step.

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