I’m a (almost) Middle Aged Mum, Is it Too Late to Start Med School?
Written by M Francis
A new medical student daunted by the prospect of switching careers as well juggling med school and family life asks someone who's been there, and graduated with flying colours.
Ever since I can remember I’ve had two passions - theatre and medicine. I don’t mean theatre as in surgery, I mean theatre as in drama: acting, writing, directing and teaching storytelling. To be fair, these two things have always been pretty entwined in my life. Growing up I lived with a chronic illness and so I used theatre as a way to escape and become someone else. Children, especially if they are struggling, will always find one way or another to create an alternative world, and for me, it was the world of pretend that drew me to theatre.
When I finished highschool I had my heart set on pursuing something creative and, while I did apply to study Medicine at the University of Newcastle, I have to admit I was somewhat relieved when I didn’t get in. I gave myself a green light to follow my heart into the arts and it was every bit as fulfilling, challenging and joyful as I had hoped it would be. I was fortunate to work with inclusive theatre companies in the UK, study playwriting at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and I became the CEO and Artistic Director of an amazing theatre company in Sydney that blended creative expression with meaningful social change.
It was at the end of my maternity leave, after taking a year off work for the birth of my second daughter that the idea of going back to university to study medicine started to nag at me again. I’d just moved to a new city, left behind an amazing job and I was struggling to find work in our new location. Looking back, I can put the decision down to running. With two small humans hanging off me 24 hours a day and a husband working in another city I was in a slump and (in the immortal words of Dr Seuss) ‘unslumping oneself is not easily done’. I started to train for a half-marathon and somewhere around two months and 320km’s into the journey my mind suddenly and very clearly said ‘Hey mate, you can bloody do it. You can become a doctor’.
So here I am (quite poetically I think) 20 years later and I’ve jumped through all the hoops and I’m ready to start the Joint Medical Program at the University of Newcastle in February 2021. Full of excitement and terror at what lies ahead, I decided to reach out to another medical mum, Amy Coopes, to get her advice on how I can survive (let’s be realistic, pitting my expectations at survival is a solid goal) the next five years.
Meet Amy Coopes, a Hack turned Quack and Mum
Amy Coopes was kind enough to sit down with me and share her experience and advice. In a weary nod to how complex our lives are, I note that our interview took place at 9pm on a Thursday, after both of our sets of kids had gone to bed (for the first time) and was cut short by a teething toddler and hence completed over email.
Amy has recently graduated from the University of New South Wales after completing a six year undergraduate medicine program and is set to begin her internship experience in 2021. She left a full time career in journalism to pursue medicine at the age of 30, after a decade in news reporting, including five years as the Australia correspondent for the Agence France-Presse. She is also an editor of Croakey News, publishing independent, in-depth social journalism for health.
Why did you decide to change your career path and start medicine?
I think I always wanted to do medicine and, even in high school, I saw it as being something that I would really enjoy. A few things led me to the point where I felt like I’d reached a crossroads with news journalism and needed to do something more meaningful with my life. I reported on a string of disasters before I made this decision and that, I think, planted this seed in my mind. I’d go on big jobs like a tsunami, earthquake, floods, or the bush fires - particularly when I went overseas on these jobs - and I'd see groups like the Red Cross or MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and they were actually helping in a hands on kind of way. I understood that when you are a journo you are helping, but in a much more intangible way and I got to the point where I increasingly asked myself if bearing witness was enough for me. If that was the right use of my energy and time on the planet. So these types of things were the catalyst for me. Then my sister got pregnant and I ended up being her birth partner and I was very involved in her pregnancy and birth journey, and I had all this time with her in the hospital, and I feel like it all just kind of came together and the idea [of medicine] just presented itself to me.
What was it like to study medicine after a career in the humanities? How did this influence the way you thought about medicine?
I remember when I told a select few friends that I was going to do the entrance exam for medicine and most people were really shocked. They saw it as such a complete about face from what I was doing at the time. Even since I've been in med school people have commonly seemed to have that reaction — that it was a total gear shift from reporting — and I suppose in some ways it is, but I also see such overlap in lots of ways too. There’s skills between the two jobs that are shared. I really think that medicine's about communication and about listening and obviously you need to have that knowledge base there to treat people but communication is at the heart of it.
As an older student and a parent, what were the challenges you faced and what were the advantages of having these experiences?
Some of the students in my cohort had just come out of school, some of them weren’t even eighteen, and I was thirty. I had been a journalist for ten years, and a proper travel-the-world-gone-to-all-kinds-of-crazy-places journalist. I felt like I’d lived ten lifetimes compared to most people that I knew, let alone people who had just come out of high school. I found myself, at times, very lonely and quite isolated.
I came from a profession that is not hierarchical at all. It's very flat. You have a boss but their opinion doesn't necessarily matter any more than yours does on a story, or it’s at least open to robust discussion. Then I came into this world [medicine] that was very hierarchical and in a way it reminded me of growing up in a military family where there are those values that people are owed respect because of their rank, so to speak… So particularly as someone who's a bit older and also has other experiences, I found that particularly at the start very, very challenging.
Learning to communicate was a challenge. When you’re someone who thinks that you are a communicator — I had communication degrees, so I thought that this would be a breeze for me — but it’s different! It’s really different. Having clinical encounters is not the same as doing an interview. As an interviewer, I was always quite opportunistic and would, of course, have a list of questions but would like to follow where the conversation took me, and you can’t do that when you’re taking a clinical history… I really had to relearn how to talk to people. I found that really hard… it’s very humbling.
There are also other demands on your time. You have a partner, you have children and trying to juggle all that is just supremely difficult. At times you’re going to feel that you’re not a good parent, you’re not a good partner, you’re not a good friend and you just have to be kind to yourself and roll with that a little bit. I think the kind of thing that never gets talked about but that is really valuable is what you're showing your children is possible. Showing them what their mother is capable of. I don’t think you can put a price on showing your children what an accomplished woman looks like and it’s something that I’ve held onto at times when I’ve been really struggling with keeping all the balls in the air.
Has being older than the average age of your cohort influenced which specialisation you’ll choose?
When you’re a parent and you come to medicine later in life I think you do have to be quite pragmatic. One of the big considerations is how long does training take. You don’t necessarily want to spend another ten years after med school becoming fully qualified. Even though you’re making money from the point of internship, your life is up in the air in a sense until you become a fellow and you choose where you are going to put roots down. Not only do you think about the length of training, but you also think about what training is like. Some of the specialities are also very onerous, particularly surgical specialities, or ones with notoriously difficult exams. I absolutely love obstetrics and gynecology, that was what drew me into medicine, but it’s difficult to see how I could pursue this with a young family, purely because the training is incredibly punishing. You’re on call for six years of your life (and the rest) and you don’t see your family. You work very long hours, and it’s very competitive to get into as well. The other thing to consider is that I am passionate about and hope to pursue rural practice, and pretty much every speciality, apart from GP, you have to do at least part of your training in the city. So for me, I’m drawn towards specialties where you can do most of your training rurally, and the time when you have to go to the city is limited to the bare minimum.
What advice can you give me as a parent going into medicine? What can I do to succeed?
The number one thing that I say to people is you have to really want it. Cause it's really hard when you're doing it, and it requires so much sacrifice at a time in life when most of your peers are just hitting their stride. Practice radical forgiveness of yourself, and understand that the things you may see as shortcomings as a med student parent will turn out to be some of your biggest strengths and the things that will stand you in great stead as a doctor. You’ll be amazing at juggling and prioritising, maximising the absolute most out of every minute, you will be patient and practical in solving problems. You’ll know what it is to walk in the shoes of someone who loves and cares for another person, and you will be able to empathise - truly empathise - with so many of your patients, simply because you have lived. My strategies for survival have been to manage and block out my time with military precision, and to have times of the day and the week that are non-negotiable family time. It’s really important to keep certain times and rituals for your kids, because there will be periods where you will be very busy and very stressed, and absent mentally even though you may be at home. I think it’s really important to draw on your support networks as much as you can to share the load on your partner, call in every favour so that you can to keep the home fires burning. And for me a big one has been learning to say no (especially to work).
It is hard and there will be times, especially earlier on when the payoff seems so abstract and far away, where you have serious doubts and want to chuck it in. But as someone who has just come out the other side, I will say that there are also times where you realise what an immense privilege the job is, and how very fortunate we are to have a shot at doing it for keeps. Delivering a baby, sitting with a dying patient and their family, being able to tell someone they are in remission.
These moments do stay with you, and they make all the hard work and the stress and the sleepless nights worthwhile.
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