WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Suzanne Watson couldn’t help but laugh when she received her AARP card and her acceptance letter from Wake Forest School of Medicine in the same week at the age of 50.
“I sold my SUV and bought a convertible, and I got the license plate REV DOC,” said Watson, who spent 15 years in the ministry before applying to the medical school.
Now, at 54, she is a fourth-year medical student, pursuing a second career that in many ways takes her full circle to her early life.
Watson grew up in San Diego, California, living next door to her grandfather, who was a psychiatrist. She graduated from the University of California at San Diego in 1985 with a bachelor’s in biology and economics, then worked for a time before going to medical school in California. She married David Paul Watson in the late 1980s and for a while helped him start his private practice in the 1990s in San Luis Obispo, California.
While she was enrolled in medical school, Watson became pregnant with her second child, so she and her husband decided she would withdraw from the program while he continued his career path in neurology.
“It was a big decision and it was very hard because you do give up a part of your identity when you leave something like medicine,” Watson said.
Still, she said her decision was best for her family.
She missed her first child’s first step while she was in school and didn’t want that to happen with her second child.
Watson later chose to pursue a career in the ministry.
“I was starting to feel a call to ministry for a lot of the reasons I was called to medicine,” she said. “It was that ability to impact people’s lives.”
Three months before she graduated with a master’s of divinity from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, her husband committed suicide in 2002.
Watson said he had suffered depression in silence for years and was afraid to ask for help because of the stigma of depression and the financial implication for his practice and family.
“I had four kids under the age of 9,” Watson said. “Life insurance doesn’t pay in these circumstances, and I had physician-lifestyle costs with a mortgage and everything and really no way to pay it.”
She said she ended up putting her house on the market, getting her children out of private school and finding a job to put food on the table. Her first job in the ministry was as an associate pastor at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Carmel, California.
Watson and her children moved to New Zealand for a year, then back to the United States where she got a job with the Episcopal Church headquarters in New York. While serving as head pastor of St. David’s Episcopal Church in San Diego, California, Watson said she decided to return to the field of medicine, partly because some family members struggled with bipolar disorder.
She said good medical management and psychiatric care can transform people’s lives, helping them live healthy, abundant and productive lives.
Watson also said she figured she might as well try having a career in medicine.
“I just didn’t want to regret it,” she said. “At least, when I was on my porch in my cardigan, I can say I tried or even failed,” she said laughing.
Watson said she decided to enroll at Wake Forest School of Medicine based on the institution’s Christian heritage and counsel from her academic adviser, William Wingard, at the University of California at San Diego. Wingard completed his graduate degree at Wake Forest University.
She said she was nervous she would not be accepted by fellow students at the medical school and thought they would mistake her for a professor or administrator.
Watson, who is scheduled to graduate in May, said she did get some awkward moments during her interviews for medical school and now on her interviews for a residency in psychiatry.
But she said she has been welcomed by students and faculty members at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
“Students like Suzanne add new dimensions to our medical school curriculum that extend beyond the academics, especially from a cultural perspective,” said Dr. Brenda Latham-Sadler, associate dean of student inclusion and diversity. “Her background and experience are immensely valued here, and we welcome the unique contributions that Suzanne and other second-career students bring to the table.”
Dr. Marcia Wofford, associate dean of student affairs, said, “Suzanne embodies the notion that we all have opportunities to redesign our career path and life work if we are willing to be true to our dreams, even if that means taking the less-traveled path.”
She believes Watson will bring hope and encouragement to her future patients as a physician.
Watson’s advice to anyone interested in pursuing a dream late in their lives is to go for it.
“The first thing is to take a small step whether their deepest desire is to sing or play a guitar, to go to law school or to be a librarian,” Watson said. “Whatever it is, start to make that first, small step, and ask those around you that you trust for guidance and support along the way. But also trust in yourself. If you feel truly drawn to do something, do it.”
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