Renee Ridley

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After working as a nurse and professor for 30 years, and taking the MCAT exam 5 times, Renee is in medical school pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.

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Undergraduate: Murray State University, 1985
Major: Nursing
Graduate school: MSN from Murray State University (Family Nurse Practitioner), 1996;
PhD from Saint Louis University, 2008
Medical school: Texas A&M College of Medicine, 2019
Specialty: Planning to do OB/GYN

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I was always interested in the sciences growing up, even to the point of dissecting a chicken at the dinner table (definitely not well-received). I do not recall being asked in high school what my career aspirations were, but I do remember my father saying that since I was a female and interested in healthcare, I needed to go to nursing school. Choosing medicine instead was a non-negotiable subject since there were no female physicians in my rural Kentucky county, and at the time, I was not ready to tackle gender biases that I didn’t even realize existed. Looking back, they seem quite obvious. However, I was raised in a good, stable household, so I did not question my father’s decision for me to go to nursing school at the local university.

What led to your interest in medicine?

Medicine was something that I was always interested in. Growing up, my grandfather and uncle were insulin-dependent diabetics whom I saw daily. Their chronic illnesses intrigued me, and I knew there was something about it that required a great deal of careful thought and actions. I recall one time in the 1970’s when my grandmother had accidentally given my grandfather twice the amount of insulin needed.I had to help make sure he remained stable throughout the night by feeding him a prescribed amount of carbs/proteins and checking his blood glucose levels. Healthcare was different back then.Folks didn’t visit the emergency department unless there was trauma, they were having a baby, or they were dying. My grandfather’s doctor thought this was something we could handle at home, so we did.

How did your nursing career progress?

My path to medicine is like none other. I started working as a Labor/Delivery RN thirty two years ago at the age of 22. We were cross trained to work L&D, Newborn Nursery, Postpartum, and GYN Post-Surgical. I fell in love with this type of care immediately. The doctors I worked closely with knew that I really wanted to advance my practice to the next level, but all I saw were barriers. There was no way I could uproot my family (happily married with two young children at that time), move to another city, and go to medical school.  My family depended on me to provide income, insurance, and stability for them, so there was no way.

What I was able to do, however, was go to Nurse Practitioner school.  It was located in the same city where I was working as an RN, and very affordable.  The program only took 15 months and I could still be a full-time wife/mother.  Life as a Family Nurse Practitioner was much different than that of being an L&D nurse, so I wasn’t sold on it being the right thing for me. I still wanted more knowledge.  This led to me taking a job as a nursing professor at the local university, and eventually getting my PhD, since that was an expectation for academia. This led to great opportunities, like teaching Maternal Newborn Nursing (OB/GYN) at various universities, which was something I really loved.  However, I really missed the clinical practice side.  I missed the patients.

Who or what inspired you?

On the whole, my husband of 34 years and two children (Ryan and Robyn) have been my inspirations throughout life. They are the reason I kept going back to school. I wanted life to be better for them, so I knew that meant me expanding my abilities as a professional.

What made you decide to apply to medical school?

My son, Ryan, is the one who made me take the leap of faith.  He is now 30, and I’m sure he remembers growing up with a working mother, an RN, who always wanted to go to medical school and was never able to get there for so many reasons. After I finished my PhD in 2008, I was hired as an Associate Professor at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi (TAMUCC).  That meant moving the family from Kentucky, which was difficult since I had lived there my whole life. Both Ryan and Robyn decided to pursue their undergraduate degrees there since they qualified for free tuition due to a state law in favor of recruiting nursing professors to Texas. Ryan encouraged me to take courses alongside him and Robyn since they were both pursuing Biomedical Science degrees.  Ryan suggested that I take one course at a time so that I could see if MAYBE I’d like it well enough to later apply to medical school. I thought it was a crazy idea, but of course I did it!  How many mothers can say that they have taken science-based college courses with their grown children?  It is one of the best memories that I have thus far!

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

Along my lengthy journey, I had so many folks who encouraged me to apply to medical school. There were just as many though who questioned my sanity and weren’t sure this was the best thing for me, considering I am now 54 years old. Among my loudest supporters have been the nurses, nursing faculty, nursing students, and nursing assistants whom I worked alongside for many years.

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school? 

There were two physicians that I worked with for many years in KY who never gave up on seeing my dream come true: Dr. Clegg Austin (pediatrician) and Dr. Gene Cook (OB/GYN). They both wrote letters of recommendation for me to include in my application.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I prepared by doing a thorough analysis of what my strengths and weaknesses were. I was a re-applicant, and was accepted the second time around. Mr. Filo Maldonado, Associate Dean of Admissions at Texas A&M College of Medicine, was instrumental in helping me fill in the gaps. He made suggestions of what I could do to make my application stronger. For example, although I had a tremendous amount of healthcare experience, he suggested that I volunteer as an RN at the Health for All Clinic in Bryan, TX.I did this as well as re-take the MCAT until I got the score I needed to be a competitive applicant.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

Yes, I took the MCAT 5 times. I am invariably a slow reader, so getting through all the passages was a struggle for me.I was also used to over-thinking everything (ala PhD); so, this characteristic did not help when it came down to a timed standardized exam.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

The difference between success and not success for me was taking an in-person prep course. The instructor worked with me on my timing, and I was able to get the score I needed after many practice questions.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

My biggest fears were those related to not fitting in due to my age.In retrospect, I’m pretty sure that my age and previous work/life experiences are why I was able to get in.These Gen X, Y, and Z’s needed a Baby Boomer in the mix to give them a broader perspective. It has benefited me as well.

How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?

I was fortunate to attend a pre-matriculation program at TAMCOM called Med Camp.  It was a 4-week summer immersion along with 23 of my classmates. It was there that I was able to assess my true strengths and weaknesses and what I needed to fix before arriving in July.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

Texas A&M College of Medicine holds diversity as a high priority. This was perfect for me as I want to learn from students who are different from me or where I came from. It allows me to grow as a person and professional. Besides that, who best to accept a 53-year-old female into their program? A school that values diverse colors, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, experiences, and yes- AGES.

What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?

I have relied 100% on the financial aid loans offered through Texas A&M throughout medical school. Although my husband works full-time, not having two incomes after 35 years of relying on it, has been an adjustment, but we’re making it work.

What was your first year of medical school like?

We were the first class to do the 18 month pre-clerkship curriculum at TAMCOM, so everything felt fast and furious.At first I thought it was just me since I am 30 years older than everyone else, but I’m convinced now that I was in good company.It allowed us to form bonds quickly, which has helped me to get through with much more confidence. Nothing is better than the bonds formed with classmates.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

Yes, I use to be a firm believer in going to class at all cost. However, I quickly learned about 6 months in that watching streaming lectures is not a bad thing. In fact, it helped my study habits tremendously.

Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

During the first year, I was elected as one of the class officers as Curriculum Committee representative.This role kept me very busy, but it allowed me to get to know pretty much everyone in my class better. I felt like it was a good way for me to contribute something positive to my class since I had previously served on many curriculum committees as a nursing professor.I also served as President of the OB/GYN Interest Group during my second year.This was a wonderful opportunity to connect with others in the COM who are thinking about doing this specialty as well.Finally, I am one of the Student Ambassadors.This role has allowed me to meet many applicants as well as supporters and donors for our school.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

I make sure to include my husband in everyday communications and activities.He and I are typically invited to any social activities that my fellow classmates are having, so we participate as much as we can.Our daughter and her husband also live here in Bryan, TX. So, we try to make time for them as well. Overall, time management has not been a huge obstacle.This is a lot easier than raising two kids and having multiple jobs at once!

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

I have a chronic illness, Common variable immunodeficiency (CVID), which requires me to take intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) every 4 weeks. Many of my classmates say they don’t know how I keep up with everything. My answer to this: I am very resilient.I believe it is a quality that will serve me well when I am an OB/GYN trying to help women make the best of each and every situation.

What makes your story unique?

To make a long story short, it all boils down to this: I am a 54-year-old female who was raised in a rural, traditional community where gender determined my profession. After raising two wonderful kids alongside my devoted husband, as well as serving patients and nursing students for 30 years, I was finally given my opportunity to go to medical school.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

By far, it is the friendships I’ve made with fellow students. It is truly intergenerational bonding at its best.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

The amount of information that has to be memorized has been quite surprising to me. Although this is my 4th degree, I do not recall that being an issue with any of my nursing degrees. Then again, I went through those programs at a much younger age.

Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.

Being a Baby Boomer, I see things through the eyes of most patients, since the majority of patients are now from that generation. That does two things: 1) It allows me to advocate for the patient when we (our class) are learning ways to help them; 2) It gives me a unique way to help my colleagues view the world from an alternative perspective. I love my class.I really do.

What specialty is your top choice?

OB/GYN was the obvious choice due to my background in nursing.I cannot see myself doing anything else.

What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?

Make sure it is what you want to do. Get enough time in with practicing physicians so that you can see what it is you will ultimately be doing on a daily basis. I was lucky enough to work alongside OB/GYN’s as an RN for many years, so I know exactly what I’m getting myself into.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

Believe in yourself. Be your best advocate. Align yourself with folks who are different than you so you can learn from them.Most of all, develop flexibility and resilience. It will carry you far as a physician.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career track similar to yours?

If you’re interested in OB/GYN, talk to ladies who are of childbearing age and beyond. Find out what qualities they look for in an OB/GYN.  Take a good look at yourself and be honest. Envision yourself bringing life into the world every day. Does it feel rewarding?  Can you see it? I certainly can!

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