The Rev. Suzanne Watson

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After a career in the church, Suzanne decided to pursue medicine at the age of 48. She says you're never too old to live your dreams.

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Undergraduate: UC San Diego, 1985
Major: Biology, minor in economics
Graduate school: Master of divinity, Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley
Medical school: Wake Forest School of Medicine, 2017
Specialty: Psychiatry (most likely)

Who or what inspired you?

My inspiration was my grandfather, who practiced psychiatry next door to our family’s home. I’ve wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember and planned to enter medical school after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, San Diego.

However, I met my husband, a neurologist on the UCSD faculty, and we were soon married. By the time I enrolled in med school (for the first time at UC Irvine in 1991), we had moved, opened a practice, and had a 9-month-old child.

In my first semester, I became pregnant with our second child. Being pregnant, caring for a 9-month-old, and sustaining a commuter marriage (my husband was practicing in a city four hours away from my school) was really an unsustainable situation for my family. I felt it was best to withdraw from medical school.

In retrospect, I’m glad I had the time at home with my husband and the kids. I’m in a much more settled place now and I have a strong “call to serve.”

What did you do before going back to medical school?

After I left school, I went on to earn a master of divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley and became an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.

Unfortunately, a few months before I was ordained as a priest in March 2002, my husband committed suicide. He suffered from depression and struggled with seeking treatment. I believe that his fear of the stigma associated with mental health was a huge contributor to his death, which was a heart-wrenching tragedy.

Over the next decade, I focused on raising our children and continued my work in the church. I was even nominated for the 8th Bishop of Alaska. But through it all, I still had a deep interest in medicine, and I had this incredible, growing sense that I was called to expand my vocational service through the practice of medicine.

Losing a loved one because of mental health issues, and the associated stigma, gave me a strong desire to both practice medicine and devote time to mental health advocacy. Although I sense I was able to accomplish good through my ordained ministry, I felt I could do more and go further as a physician.

Did anyone encourage or discourage you about going back to medical school?

I was initially discouraged by the fact that my father, whose education was sidetracked by military service, applied to medical school at age 32 but was informed he was too old.

However, my spiritual adviser saw my internal struggle and asked me to think about being a good steward of all my gifts. My oldest son, who is now 22, also encouraged me. He said, "I’ve heard you talk about medicine your whole life. If you’re going to do it, you should do it now.”

What makes your story unique?

At 48, I began studying for the MCAT® exam, even reviewing physics flash cards between services at St. David’s Episcopal Church in San Diego where I was the priest in charge. I did well enough to apply and eventually be accepted at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

I see medicine as an evolution of my call to ministry and trust that the two are going to be combined in some way in the future. Life is short. I felt I owed it to myself and my creator to be a good steward of all the gifts that I’ve been given and to pursue my dreams. This endeavor has made me feel more alive and happier than I’ve felt in a long time.

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

YES! I have taken out loans by going through the FAFSA process, but have also been awarded a very generous need-based scholarship from my medical school. I am also the recipient of a scholarship for students who will be involved in Christian medical missions after graduation and residency.

Do you remember your first day of medical school? What memory stands out the most?

Yes. I think people thought that I was the professor on my way in to lecture. But my classmates have been fabulous. I have felt 100% support from students, faculty and administration.

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

You’re never too old to live your dreams. Take a risk and try.

I've found in my ministry and in my own life, it is the things that we don't try for that we regret the most, not the thing we pursue and fail at. Getting up every day knowing you are pursuing what makes your heart sing equips you for whatever challenges that might await.

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