03/12/2012 08:29 am ET

Sharon Handelsman, Nurse-Midwife, Becomes A Physician At 58

Earlier this year, Dr. Sharon Handelsman, a Chicago physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, took her orals –- the last step to becoming a board-certified OB-GYN. The former nurse-midwife enrolled in medical school at age 50, fulfilling a dream that had been dashed four decades earlier. She spoke with Huff/Post50 editor Laura Rowley. Here is Handlesman’s story in her own words:

I started working in healthcare at age 15 as a “candy striper” volunteer at Illinois Masonic Hospital, and became a nursing assistant in pediatrics at 16. I always knew I wanted to deliver babies. All I ever wanted to be was a doctor.

I started out at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 1969 as pre-med major. My advisor told me that I probably wouldn’t get into medical school. So I gave up. In the early 70s, when the university started a graduate program in nurse midwifery, I transferred to the Chicago campus.

I had a great career and lot of autonomy, but the feeling of regret hung over me all those years, especially after I got my PhD in nursing and was teaching at different medical schools. I kept thinking, “Why did I give up?”

Then my husband told me about a two-year premed program at Loyola University for non-traditional students. The classes were at night and on Saturdays. If you were approved for the program and your grades were good enough, you could try to apply to med school.

I went back to repeat my pre-med courses when my son was a senior in high school. My first day in general chemistry the professor was talking about some kind of graphing calculator –- in 1969 we used a slide rule. I came home and said to my son, “This isn’t going to work.” He said, “Come on Mom, I have a Texas Instrument calculator, I’ll show you how to do it.” I got through that and got an A in chemistry.

I started medical school in 2001 at Southern Illinois University. I was the oldest student. I lived away from home for four years; one year in a student dormitory in Carbondale and three years in a small apartment in Springfield. Sometimes my husband would come and stay in the room with me, and sometimes my son would come. At that point he was a student at Indiana University.

One Friday night I was studying. My room was across from the bathroom and some underage girls had been drinking and one got sick. They didn’t live there; they were visiting. One of them dropped a drink and broke a glass. I went over and said, “You shouldn’t be drinking, you’re underage; and make sure you clean it up because all of us from the dorm use this bathroom.” I left to go back into my room and I heard girls laughing and saying, “Oh, that old bitch.” I was one of them -- I was a student -- but I was the old bitch.

Living at school made studying so much easier. I had no distractions. Everything was in close proximity; I never fought traffic. On the other hand, I lived too far to go home to Chicago very often, so it was kind of lonely. But it was just a matter of talking to my family on regular basis, and they encouraged me. I think I was probably a better medical student at age 50 than I would have been at age 22, because life experiences give you a sense of maturity that keeps you focused.

There is no question that there is age prejudice out there. I didn’t experience it in my classes at all, but among physicians who had been in practice 30 years. They were saying, “At your age, how could you study like that? How could you remember anything when you’re 50 years old?” The literature shows if you challenge your mind it will stay healthy. What greater challenge then sitting and memorizing fact after fact to keep the mind stimulated?

People couldn’t believe that I could manage being a resident at my age –- the long hours and sleepless nights. But it’s very individual. I was working with young residents who would fall asleep in the middle of the night and I was going and going and going. We should not be defined by our age, or feel we have limitations based on age.

Don’t let anyone discourage you from pursuing your dream. And really take the time to gather people who can give you strength and support, because that network is very important. It was the help of everyone in my family –- my son, my husband and my parents -- that really made a big difference.

Now I work at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, which has a number of federally funded clinics for underserved patients. I work in those clinics four days a week and have one day a week for surgeries. I’m also the clerkship director for OB-GYN. We have three med schools that feed students into the hospital, and every week I meet with them. I want them to have a really good med school experience and come out being strong and professional.

As a nurse-midwife I was close to my patients, but if a complication occurred I would have to send them to the physician. Now I am the physician. What makes it especially rewarding is the ability to work with patients who had difficulties with a prior pregnancy and lost a baby. When you take those families through a pregnancy and the baby is healthy and fine, it is the most wonderful feeling. What could be greater than bringing life into this world? Even after all these years, I’m still excited with each birth.

(Check out the slide show below of famous late bloomers who either changed careers or did their best work later in life.)

Late Bloomers