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Changing Careers: Choosing Medical School in Mid-life

Cynthia Carey _Lorraine YuWhile some middle-agers are busy preparing for retirement, others are preparing for a second career. National University of Health Sciences is admitting more students their 40s, 50s and even 60s who are returning to school for a new degree in natural health care and a whole new life.  

"Some switch careers to cope with a changing economy. Others switch after a life-altering event like divorce or the death of someone close. Most are fulfilling long lost dreams of helping others as the doctors they've always wanted to be," says Victoria Sweeney, National's director of admissions. " But on the whole, they often do very well here."

Former Teacher Fulfills Her Passion in Natural Health
One such student, Mary Ellen Kowalski, 52, used to be a teacher for disadvantaged students in both Indiana and Chicago. Yet in her own life, she was always passionate about nutrition and holistic health. "All those years teaching school, I saw what the kids were eating, their access to pop and candy, and how this deeply affected their social and cognitive behavior. I could see how poor nutrition was an underlying problem in our society." 

"I had a sister-in law that died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was a heart-wrenching experience, especially since she had a baby. When I saw the limits of what drugs and surgery could do, their side-effects, and how unnatural our health care system had become, it was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Mary Ellen. The event forced her to take stock of her own life. "I had to evaluate myself and ask myself - 'What do I want to do in the last half of my life?' 'Can I make a difference?' What do I feel passionate about?' - instead of just going through the motions of life."

Mary Ellen is now in her last year toward a degree in naturopathic medicine. "If I was just after more money, I could have become an MD instead of an ND. I just didn't see myself spending the rest of my life simply treating symptoms and handing out pills. While MDs are terrific at what they do, I want to do more to educate my patients about natural ways they can take care of themselves. I really have a passion for the topic of autoimmune diseases and children, and can see myself working with those issues in the future." 

What's it like to be back in school with classmates half her age? "It's been tough. It's challenging. I can't pull all-nighters like I did in my younger days. I have to pace myself," says Mary Ellen, who actually moved into on-campus housing with her husband. "But other students are very accepting. I don't feel any different. Being around them and their energy and their ideas, it's a nice symbiotic relationship. I can impart some wisdom, while they can impart to me some new ways of looking at things."

Leaving the Business World to Fulfill a Former Dream
Jim Keating, 45, recently graduated from National's Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine Program and finished his second degree, a master of science in acupuncture, in August. He was fascinated by chiropractic medicine and acupuncture in high school, and would have loved a career as a chiropractic physician or acupuncturist. Instead, he chose a business career. "I thought business would be an easier choice academically, and an easier way to become successful. What I found out after 20 years is that there is no easy way in life."

"As I got older, and after going through a divorce, I realized I was ready for a change, ready for a passion, ready for a career not just a job. I wanted a field that I could become an expert in, something I could take pride in and continue to grow in for the rest of my life. I really wanted intellectual stimulation, as I'd been lacking that for years in the business world. So I went back to what always appealed to me since my youth - I wanted to try my hand at chiropractic medicine."

Keating had to take a few science courses before being admitted into the DC program at National. "I knew I was in for a challenge and up against some bright students fresh out of their undergrad with advantages of degrees in anatomy, physiology or kinesiology. I began taking a split load, slowing down my chiropractic classes and squeezing in a few acupuncture classes."

The new Dr. Keating's advice to older students? "Jump in with both feet. You have to be completely resolute and it has to be a passion. Your confidence and endurance will be tested, but the personal growth is well worth the sacrifice."

Lawyer and Business Owner Opts for Medical Career
Attorney Cynthia Carey chose to start her degree in chiropractic medicine after a personal experience in its effectiveness. "I was a headache sufferer for years and had tried everything, including MRI tests and pain-control drugs. I was totally incapacitated three days out of every 30. When I was 40 years old I tried chiropractic care, and after three sessions, was headache free and have been so ever since. After that, I got really interested in all kinds of alternative health." 

Cynthia, describing herself as "50+," not only spent time as a lawyer, but also has experience as a teacher, counselor and business owner. "A few years ago, I came to Chicago with our sales consulting operation. I just got to the point where I hated it. It wasn't what I wanted to do for the next 25 years," she says. "I didn't want to go back to being an attorney again, and wanted to go do something I could feel extremely positive and excited about. I had such a positive experience with chiropractic care and thought that would be a really fulfilling thing to do. At the time, I didn't realize it was a four-year program and basically meant going to medical school."

"After the first few months it became fun, although at times it is challenging. The professors here are incredible. I was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of education here," she reports. "The people I share classes with are enthusiastic, helpful and have been so accepting. At first I admit I felt very uncomfortable, because I've never been in a situation where I'm clearly so much older."

Like Jim and Mary Ellen, Cynthia feels her experience is a benefit to younger classmates. "Most of their future patients are going to be older. Since we all practice on each other in class, for them to get a chance to practice on us is a very good thing."

Referring to her experience as an attorney, she says, "I also bring in a whole new perspective. The younger students don't realize that if a patient sues them for something, a person like me with a great incentive to find fault will look at every sheet of paper they have in their files. The professors try to impress upon us how important paperwork and proper protocol is. It is important."

What are the future Dr. Carey's goals? "I'm going to start an anti-aging integrative health center in Santa Theresa, New Mexico, just outside of El Paso, Texas."  In fact, Carey and her husband have already bought property there, and Carey has recruited a younger classmate to work with her as an associate.

Cynthia says, "My husband has been amazingly supportive. That's the biggest thing I'm grateful for. Without his support I wouldn't be able to have a 3.5 GPA here. I also have sons aged 26 and 22. They are so proud of me!"

"Meaning" and "Passion" Drive Second Career Decisions
What echoes underneath the stories of all three older students is that their choice to enter a new medical career was made primarily out of an internal passion for natural medicine. Each spoke of making a difference in the lives of other people and finding meaning for the last half of their working life.

That passion could lead to a more secure future as well, since health care remains a growth sector in an uncertain economy. Natural medicine, particularly, could play a bigger role in the health market as more consumers demand safer, more conservative forms of health care. With passion and life experience, older graduates in the fields of acupuncture, oriental, naturopathic and chiropractic medicine could have tremendous advantages as they launch their second careers.

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