DEL MAR — At an age when many doctors are beginning to wind down their medical careers, Suzanne Watson is starting hers.
The 54-year-old Del Mar native will graduate this spring with a medical degree from Wake Forest School of Medicine.
Although she was accepted to the North Carolina University four years ago, her desire to become a physician began long before then.
In 1991, the University of California San Diego graduate was getting ready to begin classes at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.
But a week before her scheduled start date, the married mother of a 9-month-old learned she was pregnant with her second child. And her husband, a neurologist and former UCSD faculty member, had moved to San Luis Obispo to open a private practice.
“With the challenges of having a commuter marriage and the teratogenic effects of being in the anatomy lab and having to put a gas mask on, I decided to withdraw from medical school,” she said. “I was really worried about the health of the baby.”
Instead, Watson earned master’s degrees from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley and eventually became an ordained Episcopal priest.
“It just seemed a better fit,” she said. “Becoming a pastor is not as much of a time commitment as medical school.
“In terms of hours, I could do it part time on the computer,” Watson added. “In terms of family support, it seemed that I could balance being a wife and a mom and first a seminarian, then a pastor, far better.”
But a few months before her March 2002 ordination, her life took another turn.
Her husband, who suffered from depression and was struggling with seeking treatment, committed suicide at 46.
“It did intensify my interest in going to medical school but I had to put food on the table and support of a family of four,” Watson said. “I had to sell my house and go to work fast. The ministry did fulfill a lot of things for me, but down deep inside I never completely lost my desire to practice medicine.
“What really kind of led me to finally do this was that two of our four children struggle with mental health issues,” she added. “I saw the power of good psychiatric care and medications transform their lives and the positive outcomes that they’ve had — comparing that to what happened to my husband with less-than-ideal care and his outcome. And I really wanted to devote the time I have left to that.”
Having returned to San Diego, Watson was named pastor at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Clairemont. At 40 she again thought of applying to medical school.
“But I told myself I was too old,” she said. “So I spent a good 10 years telling myself I was too old, but then finally did it, which I kick myself for because I’d already be practicing.”
With encouragement from her children — now aged 18 to 24 — Watson decided to finally fulfill her dream. Initially she planned to apply to Caribbean medical schools because she thought her age would preclude her from being accepted anywhere in the United States.
But an advisor urged her to give it a try when he saw her test scores and credentials. Unlike most, she only applied to a handful of schools, targeting those recommended by her advisor that are friendly to second-career medical students.
She was accepted at two schools but chose Wake Forest because of its roots in Baptist tradition. She was offered a generous scholarship but will still graduate with some student loans.
“With the cost of medical school and the loss of income while I’m a student, my financial planner said it would be a whole lot cheaper if I purchased a Ferrari and took a year off work,” she said. “But what’s the cost of happiness? I’ve never, ever been so happy in my life. The experience has been very gratifying.”
At first she was concerned about how her classmates would react to her.
“Would they talk to me?” she asked. “Would they think I was odd? Would they think I’m the professor, which they usually do?”
At her first meet-and-greet with other students, she walked into a game of beer pong.
“I think they thought I was there to complain about the noise,” she said.
As it turns out, her age has proved beneficial.
“With age you already have developed an inner strength,” Watson said. “I know my value as a person and, speaking from my faith perspective, as a beloved child of God.
“My value is not reliant on whether … I do poorly on a test or if an attending or a resident’s having a bad day and snaps at me about something,” she added. “I don’t internalize that and take that to mean I won’t be a good physician or I shouldn’t be in medical school. I can keep things in perspective.
“I think a younger person that enters med school, which can be so demanding, can make one question one’s self. When you don’t have a good sense of self going into it, it can be a little bit harder and it can be a very challenging time.”
Watson tries to impart that wisdom on her classmates, taking on the role of “a nice aunt” rather than a mother.
She is currently interviewing for residency programs and plans to pursue psychiatry, in part because of her life experiences.
“Working with people who have had suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, I really feel that my background equips me well for that,” she said. “Having lost somebody to suicide I know what that’s like. I also know that even through the darkest of times light still comes and I would hope and pray that I can convey that to people.
“Those are the times I like to be there,” Watson added. “I also like to be there for moms of adolescents or young adults who are being diagnosed for the first time with a mental illness of some sort because I also relate to that. Nobody’s experience is the same as someone else’s but I know some of what that feels like. I can relate on a mom-to-mom or parent-to-parent level.”
Watson said she would also like to eventually do missional medicine in a high-need, underserved area.
But for now she is focused on completing medical school, starting her residency and sharing her messages of hope.
“During hard times there is help available,” she said. “The sun really will shine again. It really can get better. We can use hard times to somehow make our little corner of the world a better place.”
Watson also encourages people to do “something that makes your heart sing, even if it’s decades after you had thought that you would do it. It really can make you feel alive.”
“We live so much longer and we should use those years to do the things that we think will really truly matter,” she said.