Oldest Woman medical student in US 49 years old

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Posted by Gina from IP on June 27, 2008 at 03:24:48:

In Reply to: Age is a protected status, for IMG's, too. posted by Kedija on June 21, 2008 at 19:45:32:

Dr. Experience
by Susan Mate
Reprinted with permission from Avenue Magazine, June 2004

Hélène Meunier
At age 49, Hélène Meunier is at the top of her class—and not just because of her grades. She’s a wife, a mother of two teenagers, a keen outdoorswoman, and an accomplished computer scientist. But these days Meunier keeps busy by keeping pace with students half her age in her final year of studies at the University of Calgary’s faculty of medicine.

When she dons her cap and gown with the Class of 2005, Meunier will be the oldest student to ever graduate from medical school at the U of C. She will also be fulfilling the second of her two childhood dreams. "Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor, but I was absolutely passionate about mathematics.

"I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I had to ask myself, 'Is it medicine, or is it math?' I chose math," explains Meunier, whose youthful energy makes her a match for any of her 100 younger classmates.

Nearly three decades after becoming a computer scientist, Meunier is back in the classroom. The U of C’s three-year medical degree program is one of only two such condensed programs in North America. The schedule is rigorous, to say the least: from the time they arrive, students work full out for three years with only a few short breaks for Christmas and summer. "It is pretty intense," says Meunier. "There aren't enough hours in the day. You cannot fall behind—not in this program."

Most days, Meunier cycles to work from her stylish West Hillhurst home. The house is just one aspect of her life that differs from what most of us think of as student life. There’s also her family: two teenage sons and her husband, Jules. (A former president of Nortel’s wireless division, last year Jules traded in his lucrative career to study philosophy at the U of C.)

There’s little doubt that medical school is a venture for the young. At the U of C, the average age of incoming medical students is about 25—in the medical school there are about 300 students, but only three are over the age of 40. Meunier is the oldest student to ever enter the program. She was 47 when she started.

However, she is nonchalant when discussing the age difference in her class. To her, it’s just not an issue. "They all treat me very well, and I treat them very well. Here, I don't feel out of place, and I've made some very good friends," she explains.

Dr. Jean-François Lemay, director of the medical school’s office of admissions and student affairs, says the generation gap between Meunier and her classmates has not been a problem. "She could be the mother of some of these medical students, but she is such a big part of it. She has integrated so well within the program. She has the heart of a 20-year-old and she is passionate about what she is doing."

Lemay says medical students at the U of C are an exceptional group. One hundred students are chosen each year from a pool of 1,600 applicants. Choosing those 100 is an exhaustive process that takes months, involves many volunteer committees, and—for the applicants—essays, tests, and a series of hour-long interviews.

On average, 85 percent of positions go to Alberta students, with the remainder claimed by those from other parts of Canada. Lemay says the faculty looks beyond academic performance to consider life experience, integrity, open-mindedness, medical knowledge, and communication skills.

Meunier certainly has her share of life experience; the path to fulfilling her second dream has been circuitous. She completed one year of premedicine at the University of Ottawa before switching paths to earn her undergraduate degree in computer science and math in 1978. Her information technology career began in Quebec City with the Department of National Defence. She married Jules, also a computer scientist, in 1978, and they returned to Ottawa where they worked for a number of major companies. Hélène also started a fashion-design business with a friend in Ottawa before Jules was transferred to Paris by Nortel. After four years, the Meuniers returned to Ottawa. It proved to be a brief return; Jules was transferred to Boston in the late 1990s. Besides raising her boys and doing volunteer work, Hélène earned a premedical diploma [in the Extension School’s Health Careers Program] from Harvard. She also began teaching a physics class to other premed students at Harvard.

As the months passed, Meunier decided it was now or never in terms of fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor, specializing in pediatrics or family medicine. She applied to numerous schools in the US and Canada, and was accepted by four American schools. Meunier opted for the U of C in large part because of its speedier three-year program. "We were all set to move to Fort Lauderdale in Florida [Nova Southeastern University] . . . I'd even rented a condo. Calgary’s offer was the last to come in, and I changed my mind."

Jules says he encouraged his wife to take the lead. "I have great admiration for what Hélène is doing. I see what she does every day and I have a lot of respect," he says. "My family has followed me to parts and beyond, and now it’s her turn."

Meunier’s last-minute change of heart went over surprisingly well. "When I announced I had made my decision . . . Jules did not try to interfere at all. He said, 'Go with your gut instinct; I'm completely behind you.'"

Jules and the boys stayed in Boston so the kids could finish school. As a result, Meunier spent the first year in Calgary alone, living in a condominium in Eau Claire. Adding to homesickness, she found out her mother back in Ottawa had terminal cancer. "That was really hard," Meunier recalls. "I thought I was doing the wrong thing by being here.

I spent a week with [my mother] in the hospital. I missed a fair bit of school. I did OK, but I was really worried. At one point I thought I would take some time off and start again next year. I knew my mom wanted me to continue." After her mother died Meunier kept her advice close to her heart: "Please, follow your dream." She salvaged her year and kept pace with her class.

This summer, Meunier will be hard at work in her final year of medical school and serving her one-year "clerkship" at a hospital or clinic. (The student doctors do rounds with patients, and work with professors and hospital staff to get valuable on-the-job experience prior to graduation and subsequent residency work.) After that, Meunier can extend her residency for two to four years to encompass sectors such as family medicine or pediatrics (her desired area of specialty), or continue for several years to become a surgeon or other medical specialist. She hopes to join the philanthropic organization Doctors Without Borders and work in Africa before settling in Montreal.

Launching a demanding new career in her sixth decade will be challenging, she admits, but the energetic Meunier isn't worried. And out in the field, age will be anything but a liability. "I bring some life experience and some maturity, especially as a mother; this is really an asset. Africa is high on my list. I think there’s a big need for family doctors, there. There is a real need."

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