My first year in medical school was the most difficult of my life. Medical school is meant to be hard, to wash out those who are anything less than committed and competent. A few weeks into my classes, a steep path became even steeper when my future husband, Randy, was sent to immediate exploratory surgery to check out a suspicious mass. During the surgery, his mother and I sat in the waiting area, trying to convince ourselves that all would be well. The surgeon came in to tell us what we already surmised: Randy had cancer. The surgeon believed Randy had a future, but he tempered his optimism with the warning: “There’s a long, hard road ahead.”
Truer words were never spoken. We found ourselves on a terrible ride. My constant worry and frequent trips to visit Randy tested my resolve to keep up with my studies. While I was sorely tempted to take a break from med school, my mother encouraged me to stick with it, which I did. My first year ended with cautious optimism all around. Randy was on the mend; I had somehow passed my exams.
I had barely come home for a few weeks of summer rest when our ride took another unexpected and tragic turn: My beloved mother died suddenly from a massive stroke. The shock of her death, the challenges of helping my family get back on its feet, and the responsibilities of caring for my grieving, Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother drained me. I returned for my second year in med school exhausted in body and spirit. After being back for a short while, I decided to ask for a leave of absence, even though I understood that nearly everyone who interrupts their medical education never returns. I convinced myself I would be the exception.
On my way to apply for leave I encountered my mentor, Dr. Lasalle D. Leffall, Jr., the legendary surgeon and professor, and the model for equanimity under duress. “Aren’t you going the wrong way to class, Dr. Lewis?” That’s all it took for me to open up to him about my plans. He listened as I spoke of my rationale for a leave. He understood the pressures. He told me he believed in my promise as a healer and as a leader. And he asked me if I was ready to give up on a dream I’d had since age six. As he finished his last thought, we found ourselves at the door of the lecture hall. My class was inside.
He began to walk away. I stood there, waiting for him to encourage me to go inside. He didn’t; he didn’t need to. He and I both knew that the decision was mine. I took a deep breath, opened the door and slipped into class. Little did I know what that moment would mean for me, for my dream of being a physician, for my career in corporate leadership, and for the family that Randy and I would start, love and cherish.