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Tears and tenacity: a mom in med school

Young woman typing on laptop and writing in note book

I didn’t seriously consider going to med school until after I had my first child. By chance (and to my surprise), I discovered that I had all the necessary academic requirements, except for the MCAT. So while pregnant for the second time, I took a few hours each day to study for the seven-hour exam. I had degrees in commerce and linguistics, so for the first time in my life I was learning how the body really works. I reasoned that this would help me be a better mother, whether I was accepted into medical school or not.

By the time I took the exam, I was nine months pregnant, and I gave birth 11 days later!

My days were once again filled with breastfeeding and diaper changes. And this daughter of mine did so much spitting up that I had waterproof pads all over the house. Every time I put her down, there would be another mess and more laundry to add to the pile. She hated bedtime so very much (and still does), and for months she cried every evening. My toddler son would also wake up screaming, and some nights I felt like I was shuttling back and forth between their rooms.

And then, I found out that I was accepted into medical school. My life was about to drastically change.

I remember taking my daughter with me to main campus to look after some admission details, and not being able to find a change table. I had attended this very institution for years in my twenties. I now felt ashamed that I had walked the halls completely ignorant of the obstacles that young mothers face every day when returning to school or work. After that, every time I saw someone pushing a stroller on campus, I would wonder how they were faring.

Starting med school was a shock to the system. After staying home for four years with my kids, I didn’t have any decent clothes to wear. I felt frumpy, and old, and out of place.

Neither of my parents were physicians. I had no healthcare experience, having never worked in a clinic or a hospital. Some of my classmates had degrees in science, neurology or kinesiology, or they had PhDs or nursing experience.

I had completed one “Biology for non-Science majors” course — 18 years earlier.

But I had successfully taken the MCAT, I told myself. And I had a supportive spouse and supportive parents and in-laws, as well as the means to put the kids in daycare. I didn’t want to count myself out for the wrong reasons, even if it meant putting in more hours and working harder than I ever could have expected.

“You’ll make a good nurse,” a stranger told me a coffee shop while I was studying.

“You’re so tiny,” a patient said in clinic.

“You don’t look like a med student.”

“I bet you were surprised to get accepted into med school.”

“You should consider a mom-friendly specialty.”

“You were a stay-at-home mom? I guess anyone can get into med school now.”

“What are you doing here? You took someone’s spot.”

“Moms take too much time off from work.”

“It’s your third day here. You should know this by now.”

“I feel sorry for your kids.”

“You need to play the game.”

“You’re supposed to buy the coffee. I’m the clerk, you’re the med student.”

“Your daughter keeps crying through nap time at daycare. We’re not sure this is going to work out.”

“You son needs to be taken to the doctor.”

“She had another nosebleed.”

“The kids are growing out of their shoes again.”

“Your husband needs more help.”

“Everyone is taking care of your kids but you.”

“Mom, you study too much.”

“Mom, you should not have tried to become a doctor.”

“It will only get worse.”

“It will get better.”

“Don’t quit.”

Someone once told me that people cry all through med school. While that’s not true for everyone, I have found myself in tears in my basement, in my car, in the bathroom, in the classroom, at the hospital, and at the counsellor’s office, of course. But what is this journey if not a gruelling and emotional one?

Through hard work and with an entire village to support me, I am now in my final year of medical school as a medical clerk. I have spent months away from my kids on clinical rotations,, as many parents do while in medical school — and continue to work alongside doctors and nurses through the pandemic.

I am not a mistake, and if you are a mom in medicine, neither are you. Don’t quit. You can do it, and we need you.

Copyright © 2021 Joan Tu

About the Author

Joan Tu is currently a medical student at the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine. She has a bachelor of commerce and a master of arts in linguistics from the University of Calgary, and has worked in business analysis, real estate and personal finance. Joan Tu is the author of Raising Doctors, a guide to help parents and students navigate the world of medical school admissions and training. Learn more at