My Journey Started Generations Ago

"Well, that's just wonderful, that's just wonderful. I am so proud of you," Audrey clasped my hand in her thin-skinned blue veined hand. I had just told her I attended college. She was in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. Her short-term memory was gone, and her only reminiscences recalled a 1930's childhood in rural Minnesota. As a part of a service-learning project I did in the English Department, I visited Audrey at a long-term care facility. I was piecing together her partial remembrances using sensory stimulation-we would listen to traditional Lutheran hymns, and she would hum along; we would touch silky fabrics, and she'd recall her mother's perfect stitch; we would smell foods typical of a Scandinavian diet, and she would laugh at the lutefisk she had enjoyed in her lifetime. Audrey's memories of childhood were vivid, although she could not remember life as a mother and wife. She was always the mischievous farm girl avoiding the pranks of her brothers and hiding in hay bales. My project evoked these memories and examined the way in which language is affected by Alzheimer's disease.

This day we were talking about school-again. Every time I visited Audrey, she asked what I was doing with my life. I told her I attended a university, and she beamed with pride: "I always wanted to go to college. I really did, oh, boy! Mom and Dad didn't agree with, though. Oh, boy, no. They thought the boys aught to go, not their girls. I always thought I'd be good at something." I reassured her that she was and still is good at many things. She smiled and laughed, but it was hard for her to remember her adulthood, a time when most realize their gifts to this world.

Our ritual of talking about my education gave me a fresh and singular perspective on being both a student and a female I experienced thankfulness at having a functional memory, and I became aware of debt I owe to women who came before me and paved the way for my medical career. First, it is hard to imagine a life where childhood and retirement years blur into a single memory or where everything you smell, feel, and taste tells you there is a tomato in front of you, but the word "tomato" has vanished from your vocabulary. My brain is supple, and in the midst of my college career, I am learning and remembering the names and theories of philosophers, memorizing dates and locations of Picasso's paintings, and synthesizing organic molecules.

Audrey's pride in my college education also reminds me that is wasn't so long ago that a female physician was a laughable proposition. I am grateful to the women who made it possible for a smart young female to be anything she wanted. In 1930, there were virtually no female physicians, engineers, or professors. And, just a generation ago, a time when my own mother was a burgeoning feminist working hard to change the role of women in society, only 9% of all entrants into medical school were women. In the year of my birth, 1981, 28% of medical entrants were women. Today, the numbers are near 50%, and I am proud of the women knew that a female physician was an essential part of society.

Audrey died on a Thursday morning. My service-learning professor told me that Audrey simply leaned her head forward and died. The staff at the facility said she mentioned me that day-I do not know if that is true, but it gives me comfort anyway.

My becoming a physician is a culmination of cultural evolution and personal desire. I am not the first woman to desire being a physician, healing people not just by nurturance, but by science and technology. I am, however, of a unique cohort of women-the first generation of women in which my desire is not hindered by cultural convention. I am a capable, intelligent, sincere woman, and I am excited about being a physician. As an English and Spanish major, I read, wrote, and analyzed daily. I am a talented problem solver and analytical thinker. I know the skills I honed as an undergraduate are best manifested as a physician. I can simultaneously work with people, learn about and be a part of research, and use analytical and critical thinking skills. Without sexism or stereotyping, I will be able to expand my scope of compassion from holding one's hand to treating him/her with medicine. I am honored by this choice. And so, thanks to Audrey for wanting a choice and thanks to my mother for making such a choice reality: I choose medicine.

--Nicole Zanin ('10)