Ruth Lavigne was thirty years old when she started working with a therapist. She had just given birth to her second child and was experiencing some depression. She felt trapped in an unhappy marriage and unfulfilled in her work. She was a banquet waitress, working for her in-laws.
"I have a Masters degree in International Business," Ruth said. "Prior to moving to San Diego, my husband and I lived in Houston, where I had worked in a money management company. But I hated it. When we came to California I knew I didn't want to go back to an office job, so I started working as a banquet waitress. It may not have been challenging work -- nor did it pay well -- but it gave me flexibility so I could take care of my kids. I loved the change of pace from what I'd been doing in Houston. So I waited tables for several years."
"I did lots of waitress work myself when I was a young mother," I told her. "So I know what you mean. You can work nights and have your days free to tend to your family."
"Yes," Ruth nodded. "It was fine for awhile. And therapy helped a lot, too. It enabled me to sort out the sources of my depression and explore alternatives that might make me happier. I recall one day telling my therapist, 'I want to tell my kids that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, but how can I do that with any credibility?' I could just imagine my kids saying, "And you wanted to be a waitress when you grew up?' I knew that I had to practice what I preached."
"What did you want to be when you grew up?"
"I had always wanted to be a doctor," Ruth replied. "But when I told my therapist, it sounded so stupid. I was too old to go to medical school; I had two kids to take care of; and my husband did drywall in construction -- he certainly couldn't support our family if I went back to school. So I decided to be a medical assistant. At least that would put me in the field of medicine. I called my dad to ask if he would help me go to school. He's a doctor."
"And did he agree to help?"
"No," Ruth shook her head. "He said, 'I won't help you do that. If you're going to go back to school, do something worthwhile.'"
"Ouch," I winced.
"Yes, it wasn't the answer I expected," Ruth said. "So I decided to go to nursing school instead. I went to classes early in the mornings, spent the afternoons with my kids, and waited tables at night. I recall telling my therapist, Cathy Conheim, 'I love this. Being in medicine is so wonderful. But I'm so sad that I can't be a doctor.' Cathy said, 'Yes, it's too bad that you can't be a doctor.'
She was smart -- she didn't disagree with me or try to tell me what to do. Instead, she met me where I was emotionally, and gradually helped me move forward so that I could see for myself how mistaken I was.
Finally, one day I asked myself, 'Why can't I be a doctor?' And Cathy replied, 'I don't know. Why can't you? The only difference between you and the other doctors is that at the end of your life you'll have practiced medicine ten years less than they have.' Cathy was so right. It was a HUGE breakthrough. I didn't want to be a nurse -- I wanted to be a doctor.
"What did you do then?"
"I called my dad and he said, 'I'll help.' My mother-in-law offered to help by babysitting the kids. It was if the stars all aligned to support me once I'd made up my mind what I wanted to do. I spent the next four years taking prerequisite classes to get ready for med school. I continued to work nights as a waitress and went to school in the daytime. I took inexpensive classes at Mesa College and then transferred to San Diego State where I finished my post-baccalaureate pre-med program. I earned straight A's all the way. I took the MCAT, the pre-med school exam that everyone has to take, and got average to good scores on that. I applied to medical schools all over the place, but got accepted to just a few, including the University of Cincinnati -- where they make room for non-traditional students like me. And at age 36 -- with two kids, five and six -- I moved to Ohio and started medical school."
"And your husband went with you, too?"
"Yes, we all moved to Cincinnati to start a new chapter," she answered.
"Wow, what a great story, Ruth. It sounds like once you made your declaration of intent, the universe lined up to support you."
"Well, not the entire universe," Ruth chuckled. "You'd be surprised how many people told me I'd never make it. One parent whose son went to the same Hebrew School as my kids said, 'You're gonna be 40 when you're a resident -- you'll never make it.' And one of the guys at the gym said, 'You'll never get into medical school.' There were dozens of people who told me I was crazy, that I should give up my dream."
"But you didn't give up, did you?"
No. Once you make the leap -- once you say it out loud -- you're committed. I said it out loud to myself and to my therapist. And from that point on, I was committed.
Medical school was hard. And when I got to my internship, it got really hard -- the hardest thing I've ever done. It was a 13-year journey to become a doctor. But I couldn't give up on myself -- I just couldn't. And finally, at age 45, I became a physician. Now I am a 49-year-old oncologist, specializing in breast cancer and pediatric cancer. I'm still at the University of Cincinnati and my kids are 18 and 19.
Sometimes I feel a little sad about the sacrifices I made to pursue my dream -- especially in terms of time I missed with my children. But I knew I needed to do something so I could take care of my family, since my husband doesn't work much or earn much when he does work. I used to fear that I would lose touch with my kids because I was working so hard in med school, but that didn't happen. We are closer than ever. And Cincinnati is a great place for kids to grow up -- they've had wonderful childhood here.
"Your story is a perfect illustration of what can happen when you don't give up, Ruth. What advice would you give others, based on what you've learned in your own life?"
She thought for a minute, then replied: "It sounds kind of cheesy, but I'd tell people that it's attitude -- not aptitude -- that's most important. I am not the most brilliant person in the world. But it's all in motivation and determination. If you're committed to something, achieving a career goal, fulfilling a lifelong dream, then that's what counts the most.
"When people ask me how I got through all those difficult or unpleasant times, I say that I don't know. I just did what had to be done. I didn't think about it too much. I was just committed to my goal. It's sort of like that old story about the centipede... if you ask a centipede how he walks, he gets so focused on his hundred feet that he forgets how to do it. I think that's what I did. I didn't get hung up on the 'how' of what I was doing -- I just did it."
BJ Gallagher is the author of "It's Never Too Late To Be What You MIght Have Been" (Viva Editions)