Rounding Third | Motivation as a Non-Traditional Pre-Med Mom

 
TetherAndFly.com | Motivation for Pre-Med Moms

No, I am not on a beach.
But I might as well be standing on the moon.
This is foreign land with a foreign view. And I fought really hard to get here.

This is what I want the most.
I'm going to finish this and be proud of it.


Kevin was born ten days late. During those last days of pregnancy, I started to swear that I was never going to have him. I knew I was supposed to meet my baby really soon, but something about those last days convinced me that it was an impossible fantasy. I remember weeping in my kitchen and feeling like I would be in my 3rd trimester forever.

We scheduled an induction and waited.

And waited.

And now he's twelve.

My goal this summer was to take my required classes for graduation and to continue to saturate myself with any and all content possible that will help me prepare for graduate courses. I shouldn't be so surprised to be drenched from all the studying. Seriously, I'm soaked and leaving puddles where I walk. With about four weeks left, I don't want to see another organic chemistry mechanism... but there is still a lot of ground to cover. The days are long and I try not to think about how nice it would have been to take a break from classes this summer "if everything had gone as planned." An empty campus is nice, but it's also a little unsettling to still be there when I "should have" graduated in April.

Familiar exhaustion and discouragement can nestle in at the tail end of a journey to convince me that the finish line is still too far away. But many parts of my life did not go "as planned" and I'm acquainted with practicing a series of patterns that help me adapt and stay motivated to keep up with my goals. I've listed a few of the strategies I use, and added details about being a single mom preparing for applying to medical school.


1. One of the first steps is not allowing myself to ruminate (for long) on the negative situations or frustrating experiences. My days are scheduled very full, and there is so much going on with 4 part time jobs and a heavy schedule of classes. There are days when I feel disappointed because I didn't commit enough time to a certain thing because I had to prioritize another thing. I have a very stern rule about those days- I don't allow myself to give into negative thoughts. It's hard, because when I'm tired I am vulnerable to self-destruction. I try to catch myself doing this, and promptly shut that system off.

For example, I was collecting my books and book bag after an organic chemistry test and lab around 9:00 at night. I saw a gorgeous sunset out the window of my building and followed it impulsively. As I stood there admiring the sight, I caught my white lab coat in the reflection and scoffed a little at myself.

Look at you. Last one here. All this work and still you struggle. Still trying to finish a degree that normal people would have finished a decade ago. Would have been nice to be on a beach right now. How many years has it been since you've taken a vacation?

TetherAndFly.com | How to Stay Motivated as a Single Mom Going to Medical School

It took me a second, because I had so little sleep and felt the sting of my own judgement. But I stood there and waited until I could form a new dialogue.

This is so beautiful, and I hope my sons see this in Florida and think of me always pointing out colorful skies to them. I've always been enamored by sunsets and I spent a long time chasing light and catching it in my own way for other people to see in pictures. Now I'm ready to train for a different kind of service.

This journey is demanding an incredible amount of effort from me. Yes, it's late for a summer day. But I am so close to the end of this degree. I never thought in a million years that I would be able to come back to school and take classes like this. I never felt smart when it came to science classes, because I had to work so hard at them. And I couldn't even fathom how to fit these classes and their bulky labs into my life while raising two boys alone. But I did it anyway. I've worked hard for every class on my transcript.

No, I am not on a beach.
But I might as well be standing on the moon.
This is foreign land with a foreign view. And I fought really hard to get here.
This is what I want the most.
I'm going to finish this and be proud of it.

Wright State University Diggs Laboratory | TetherAndFly.com
Wright State University NEC | TetherAndFly.com

2. I have this very primitive picture in my head that sums up my brain activity like this: the more resources I place on studying, laughing, working out, etc., the less resources I have for worry, anxiety, or self destructive thoughts. I know it's an oversimplification of our physiology, but it works for me. One of the ways I combat stress is to plan to do something for my body that works in another direction. For instance, I see a busy schedule as a signal to think about how I can fit in workouts (usually at the gym, but sometimes at home). I know how good I feel afterwards, and intentionally give my body the benefit of a good run. I also see a long day (hopping from an ER shift to night classes) as an opportunity to think about what I'm packing in my lunch to make sure I have fuel for it. I don't pack every single day, but I try to be mindful about the health of my body being put through this kind of schedule. This also means going to sleep when I can after a big test. Some days I'm exhausted, and I *might* be napping at my desk or on a picnic table outside of my lab (sorry proper professional people that see me do this). I have a complicated relationship with sleep. I try to get enough, but when I don't, I try to catch up as soon as possible. It is vital & non-negotiable.

3. I talk to people. A lot of my work is isolating, but I do try to seek out humans to interact with. There's always a pool of people in class or lab who are interested in the same topics. It helps that we share a lot of the same challenges and goals. I'm lucky to have people who I can be honest with about some of my fears and send nerdy science memes. It's reassuring.

4. I assess the minutia of my schedule. I have a Google calendar app for my phone with appointments, work schedules, etc. Then I make a weekly to-do list on pretty paper my sister gave me. This is logistically how I make this work. It helps ease my mind to know it's accounted for on the list. It gives me a sense of control and power to do this, because a lot of my time is spent working around fixed schedules I can not change or only having a short window of free time that needs to be organized and focused. Sometimes I'm (very) stressed about everything that needs to get done, but writing out my tasks helps release some of the tension. It also gives me a plan. Often when I'm doing homework for one class, I remember something and start to feel anxious. In the past that could spiral into distraction very quickly. Having a place to write that down enables me to go back to concentrating on whatever I was working on initially. This is crucial for when my boys are here too. I can tell when I haven't been doing this, because things start to fall under the cracks. I have shed tears while writing these lists, because it felt impossible and scary to tackle everything. It's amazing though what you can get done if you simply remember it needs done in the first place.

Organization for Pre-Med Moms | TetherAndFly.com

*I know there are a lot of awesome planners out there. I like the "rip a page off at a time method" because I have heavy books and binders! I love throwing the lists away with pink check marks all over them. It's something I look forward to.

5. I think about my big big goals. I HAVE to know WHY I do this. There are many circumstances that motivate me toward this mission, and I recite the list daily to make sure I am actively aware of why I tether myself to these goals. Finding purpose in the journey is also important to me. I always say that I have to find meaning in where I am, because it is costing me so much. If I didn't find something to value in every leg of this journey, then it would be miserable. I don't think about starting medical school or residency as my most important goals. I think about next month or twenty years from now, and find meaning in the whole process. Otherwise, I think I'd be disappointed. I try to visualize myself in the future and think about what it needs from me now to be the best version of myself when I get there. What choices can I make this week that will impact future me? I know it's kind of silly, but synthesizing the present with the (what seems like distant) future inspires a lot of motivation.

6. I think about what would happen if I wasn't allowed to pursue my big big goals. What would it feel like if I received news that that I had to leave school permanently and not come back? It would almost break my heart. Actually, there were several times that this felt like the circumstance I was facing, and it made me want my degree even more. Some of these non-academic setbacks were more damaging than others, but I always came back for a new semester with a sense of gratitude for being able to sit in my classes. I am acutely aware of how close I came to not having that privilege. To start this semester, I had to fill out 14 forms (and supply a drop of blood mixed with a strand of hair) to extend financial aid. When I study until I no longer want to hear about another nucleophile or epoxide from organic chemistry, I think of how lucky I am to even be taking this tedious class. It (eventually) helps me adjust my attitude.

Teduius Organic Chemistry | TetherAndFly.com
Organic Chemistry Manual Must Have | TetherAndFly.com

The thing I hate about writing is that it's all so tidy after I've had time to reflect. Like getting through the last three years has been one healthy breeze. It was not always that way. There were many days that stress was so intense I could barely keep up. I always feel the need to come clean and admit that sometimes I abandon these suggestions and take a day off from being able to cope (probably when I'm drinking a big milkshake and watching Netflix). That's ok too, because sometimes we all need breaks from the pressure. This is just part of my typical routine that helps me regain motivation when it seems like a never ending process. I don't live with a clean perfect state of mind, but I use my mental toolbox to work toward a healthier approach. Part of making adjustments is looking at the areas I know I struggle with (time management, motivation, etc.) and strategize how to be more effective and efficient.

Only a few weeks left until my graduation.
I'm rounding third and the catcher isn't going to make the catch in time to stop me.


* Went into labor naturally the night before my scheduled induction. Damian was a week late too, but I didn't cry before he was born because my midwife told me it seemed like I cooked my babies a little longer and it seemed to be true. Contrary to questions I frequently get on campus or with coworkers in the ER, no I wasn't 14 when I had Kevin. I married young (21) and had Kev at (22). Yes I was (too) young, but not 14! I don't want people to misunderstand and think I had a hard life, because it was fantastic and I adored my squishy little smiling babies. It was a beautiful season, even though my marriage ended in divorce. As much as I feel strange for having kids when very few pre-meds do, they tell me they are jealous of me (!?) because I am done having kids and don't have to factor that into my medical school/residency plans. I've heard this from multiple women, and it shows how we can get hung up on something and see it as a "weakness," but other people admire us for it. After a few of those conversations, I started to see my situation differently and felt very thankful to be done having kids. I get to bring the ones I have with me for the journey. We share the struggles and the accomplishments together.

Damian had a birthday this week, and he showed me how he lost his 7th tooth just before his 8th birthday (the boys were excited about this coincidence). Missing my Florida boys, but thinking of them as I spend some very monotonous days studying for these accelerated summer classes. I try to dress up on Damian's birthday, because I want him to know it's always going to be a special day, even if we can't be together for it. Thank God for FaceTime. They were able to watch me work in my lab for a few minutes and use a vortex to spin a vial of naproxen... and it was nice to have them "with me." 

Damian's 8th Birthday | TetherAndFly.com
Birthdays with Shared Parenting | TetherAndFly.com
Damian's 8th Birthday | TetherAndFly.com
 

Invest in your fascination

 

Today I had happy tears as I sent a special text to my mom. It felt so nice to share GOOD news with her. She has listened to me worry during the two years of uncertainty about getting custody of my sons. She has been supportive when school overwhelms me. And today, it was such a gift to tell her first that I have a full scholarship to finish the last two semesters of my undergrad.

Photo Jul 11, 8 22 36 PM.jpg

This scholarship makes me feel like all the early mornings + late nights of studying or doing homework, while trying to provide for my sons, meant something. I want to show my sons that our sacrifices are valuable & will lead us to a moment in time when we achieve our goals.

I had no idea that the effort I was putting into my classes & research would already help us so much. My mindset has been that everything I am working toward will take years to bring results... earning this scholarship was such a big surprise. A few months ago, I was notified that my financial aid had been stopped due to being over hours (maximum time frame). I went through the long process of submitting the paperwork to petition to get aid. My request was approved, but this scholarship covers all of my school expenses. It's hard to believe that a few months ago I was wondering if I could afford to finish my bachelor's degree, and now I can breathe because I can.

I made this graphic (with the drawings of  Santiago Ramón y Cajal  and  Andreas Versalius- my two inspirations)  before re-taking anatomy & physiology.  

I made this graphic (with the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Andreas Versalius- my two inspirations) before re-taking anatomy & physiology.
 

In 2015, before I re-took anatomy I wrote, "Invest in your fascination & work persistently until you weep with pride." I made it my iPhone background & my mantra.
Then I made it my life.

As a nontraditional premed, I feel like I have decided to move in this direction without knowing for sure how it will all work out. Believe me, I realize that my experiences aren't typical. I was willing to accept that I might have to take a few classes at a time or consider other routes to practicing medicine. I often feel like I take steps without knowing for sure that there will be ground under my feet. I do have to give credit to the supportive people (my mentors, advisors, professors, and family) who have helped by believing in my journey and giving me opportunities that they know will help me reach my goals. I am so thankful for all of you!

 

Achilles and his gold

 

My sons visit their dad every June + July in Florida, and it's always hard to say goodbye.
This was our last day.

It was also Damian's last baseball game, and I wanted to remember what he looked like in his jersey. This was his first year in coach pitch and it's so fun to watch them play. His season is always especially quick, so we try to enjoy every practice & every game.

I love how big his hat fits him.

Achilles and his gold | TetherAndFly.com
Achilles and his gold | TetherAndFly.com

Damian loves that there is a song with his name. I play it often and think of both of them.
It reminds me of dancing in the car while we all sing with the windows down.
There is enough magic in their smiles to endure the summer without them.

Achilles and his gold | TetherAndFly.com
Achilles and his gold | TetherAndFly.com
Achilles and his gold | TetherAndFly.com
Achilles and his gold | TetherAndFly.com

After dinner & ice cream at the diner around the corner, it was time to drop them off. We sat on our front steps and had a family group hug. There's comfort in knowing they are always a pair and have each other in every change of scenery. I hope they will always be close friends.

Before I let go, I held Damian and sang Happy Birthday. It's a little tradition we have before he leaves. He turns seven tomorrow.

Achilles and his gold | TetherAndFly.com

I'm taking a full load of classes, working in my lab, and squeezing in photography assignments. Once I get past Damian's birthday, it gets easier to count down the days until they come home.

When I took these pictures I thought about years ago when I took these images of the boys.

 

I can tell that we are gonna be friends.

 

My fifth semester started this month.

I wasn't prepared for what it would feel like to hear my maiden name during the first morning's roll call. I've heard "Andrea Bell" spoken by teachers since 1989. This time it was an unexpected rush of triumph and pride. By speaking my name, she opened a gate and let me go free. It was permission to take off the burden of his identity and return joyfully into the familiar refuge of my own skin.  It was a song of reclaimed dignity and a thunder of confidence that the unbearable years pushed me into where I am. I like it here very much.

I can tell that we are going to be friends | TetherAndFly.com

Recognizing that I am past my halfway mark until the end of my undergrad has been more encouraging than I had realized it would be. For a long time I was focused on how much extra time adding pre-med courses would take, but now I wish I had room to take even more courses before I will finish. There is so much I want to learn.

I gave a presentation in my Psychobiology of Stress Captstone on the effects of an interesting study with evidence suggesting that the algae, chlorella vulgaris, can reduce stress on the HPA axis. I (embarrassingly) butchered speaking so many words that I do have a new resolution to speak out loud more often about the content of my classes. It showed me that I tend to ingest the material by reading silently, but need to practice the words I'm learning. On another note, it was my first time designing a slideshow about neuroscience. It made me so excited to pair design + neuroscience together in a visual format! I want to do more of this.

 

Re: General Chemistry

 
re: general chemistry by @TetherAndFly

I remember the way my fingers felt heavy as I weighed whether to withdraw from general chemistry last spring. I only understood fragments of the chapters, and was far from being competent. As optimistic as I tried to be, I knew that deep in my temporal lobes, my hippocampus was not encoding the chemistry concepts the way I would need them. By a miracle of a curve, I could possibly pass the class. "Passing the class" is not sufficient for what the future will require from me. This is the first class in a series of chemistry courses, and some of the content will be on the MCAT. I needed to have a very solid understanding of chemistry principles or moving forward would be a futile endeavor.

Coming back to Wright State in fall of 2015 after an eleven year hiatus had felt empowering. As I carefully researched my course options and sought guidance from my advisors, I started to believe that I had the determination to harness any class. It felt like I had resurrected an inner confidence that had been stifled in the shuffle of morphing into a young wife & mother. I was reclaiming an essential tenet of my identity that felt familiar, but updated. Evolved.

Just as I was getting the courage to say (out loud) that I was pre-med, I was facing the "failure," of jumping ship of a sinking academic boat. I started to wonder all over again if I could be deemed suited for the rigor of medical school. If I couldn't patch the leaks here, could I be trusted to be responsible for more difficult courses?  As a 32 year old single mom of two boys, the deck was already slightly, no, significantly stacked against me. To lose the work I had put into the first half of the semester's chemistry class was highly discouraging. My professors had recommended that we had taken previous chemistry classes, but I was too arrogant to admit that my high school chemistry class was close to fifteen years ago. I also did not admit that I hadn't really cared for it, and did not go to any length to retain any facts from it. Interesting how confidence and arrogance are probably the same- labeled differently only after we look back and assess the result of their influence.

My mindset has always been that persevering is synonymous with success, but it is more nuanced than I used to understand. Perseverance is imaginative, flexible, humble, and often has a timeline that exceeds my own patience. Perseverance also requests that we calibrate frequently in order to stay on course.

After hours of deliberation, I submitted the form to drop my chemistry class. Touching "enter" felt like I was detonating a nuclear explosion. I was wracked with guilt and fear about what I had done. I was ashamed about the money I was wasting and felt the humiliation of surrender.

Until I breathed.

Upon exhale, I felt a surge of relief.

The sensation was probably the effect of GABA and dopamine, among other neurotransmitters responding to my decision. I imagined freshly released ions crossing synaptic junctions and receptors carefully setting updated biochemical reactions in motion. I pictured my microscopic cell assembly line in slow motion, as a beautiful kaleidoscope of fireworks responding in a synced cascade to the new chemical messages. That is when I knew I had to quit feeding the neuronal circuit that relied on my insecurities. It grew strong from the repetition & frequency of my worries. Either I would move forward or I would choose another career- constantly questioning myself was costing my neurons a precious supply of limited energy. I couldn't keep wrestling with my fears because I needed every spare atom to rally around building up my strength. I also needed to stop looking at my age and single parenting like a deficit. I could make excuses or I could make a plan. There would be a rematch, and I would take time to change my approach. I couldn't walk into the classroom as the same student. What was I going to do to prepare for fall semester?

Plan A: I could watch Khan Academy videos this summer. Yes that would be wise. I'd revisit chemistry in the fall and feel ready after a summer of self tutoring. Except that I knew myself and I knew I needed structure. There was a high probability that I would not watch the videos and would most likely cram a few in just before classes started. My intentions don't always serve me well without structured responsibility.

Plan B: I could take an online intro to chemistry class from Sinclair Community College. It would keep me motivated and I could still have flexibility to take other classes at Wright State. Except that I needed to take a lab in person, and online classes usually get slumped into one day a week. I remember the art history class I took online years ago at Sinclair (for my Visual Communications degree). Sundays were the days tests were due. They were always a scramble of speed reading + a sloppy search for keywords so I could finish all my work in one sitting. It was doable but don't ask me anything about art history. This is not the outcome I wanted for general chemistry.

Plan C: I could take an in person chemistry class from Sinclair. I went with Plan C.

It had been eight years since I graduated from Sinclair and funny how I had never taken classes at Building 12 in the chemistry department. As I made my way from the parking garage to class I saw construction under my feet. I stopped to watch below the walkway as workers dug the first layer of a new building. I felt consoled by the parallel that much of my academic work would serve me in a similar fashion. This semester at community college would support the weight of my future classes, so I determined to benefit from this opportunity.

It was a perfect fit for me. It kept me accountable to go to class and gave me the opportunity to ask questions. I was in lecture three times a week in a very small class. My professor had a bench to create demonstrations while he lectured & was fantastic about tailoring his time to revisit concepts we struggled with. We did group assignments daily after lecture and were frequently quizzed so we knew whether we really understood the chapters. Labs were basic and informative.

Chemistry at Community College @TetherAndFly
Chemistry at Community College

Very soon into the semester, the foreign language of atomic theory started to make sense. Lewis Dot Structures became relaxing to draw instead of a futile mess of pencil lead erased over and over in frustrated strokes. After class I would review definitions and draw my own notes, because I knew a major weakness was my lack of fluency in science vocabulary. There are many concepts & names that sound the same, but have important differences. This time around, I wanted to carefully examine them until I could pick them apart by memory. In lab, I loved building molecular models and imagined showing my sons how to play this "game." I learned that the once intimidating algebra behind many of the formulas is reliable and I liked the consistency of its application. We scratched the surface of organic chemistry and I was excited to see snippets of physiology referenced. My professor said we could skip reading the medical references in the book, but for me, the integration of chemistry with my neuroscience and physiology classes is essential:

The molecular model drawing of L-DOPA is on my book cover? What?!
This realization several chapters into the semester felt like meeting a celebrity. I took pictures of it and tried not to act too excited.

Hey look, there's a paragraph about osteoid!
My spring anatomy/physiology course taught me to instantly recite, "Osteoblasts turn into osteocytes, which are broken down by osteoclasts..."
This basic premise of bone histology hummed in my head like a nursery rhyme as I read the page about bone matrix. I'm not too embarrassed to admit that I often channel Phil Dunphy's enthusiasm- I am delighted that life offers ripe plums & fanny packs.

As I started to understand what chemistry can teach me, it was stimulating to begin to see the connections between these disciplines. It gave me an appreciation for why I have dedicated my mind to working through a subject that felt impossible. Earning an A over the same type of content that used to make me frustrated felt immensely gratifying, and working through the obstacles reinforced my determination to become a doctor. My chemistry impediment became an opportunity to invent my own sequence of reactions. It became a chance to measure the transformation in myself.

I was always careful, of course, to use sig figs. 

-Andrea

 

Chemistry Calibration

 
Student Success Center at Wright State | AndreaBelleStudios.com

This winter I took on too many courses. It's been a blur as I tried to find a rhythm that would work for me to balance everything on my plate. It's a lesson I'm slow to learn & only grudgingly accept, but balance usually requires a reduction of what I believe I can handle.

I've enjoyed Anatomy/Physiology, Statistics, and Behavioral Neuroscience. However, I wasn't prepared for what effort and time commitment it would take to add Chemistry to the lineup. It's been more than a decade (maybe 15 years?) since I took Chemistry and I can honestly tell you that I remember almost nothing from having it in high school (oops). I finally had to withdraw and give myself some time to refresh & practice before I tackle it again.

Now that I have postponed Chemistry for another semester, I've been reflecting on what went well this semester and what I need to design differently. I'd like to think that the choices I make will always create the results I want if I work hard enough. In some ways, I will always believe that. I'm simply learning to reevaluate my original time constrictions on these goals.

To be clear, "timing" feels abrasive. I have to daily resist the temptation to imagine what could have been different in my life if I had been able to begin this leg of my journey sooner. Taking longer than I already have feels like a tremendous defeat, but lingering on the sting of this frustration would be an incredible waste of my limited energy.

It helps to believe that approaching Chemistry as a future neuroscientist will play to my advantage. As someone who believes in the power of repetition for improved long term potentiation, I am consoled that the rematch will feel more familiar. Until then, I can focus on what fascinates me about the anatomy & wiring under our skin. Like the meninges that so eloquently swaddle our brains, the beautifully designed cauda equina, and all the unfathomable little bundles of neurons that mysteriously grant us both our existence & our adaptability.

-Andrea


It amazes me that a difference between college in 2002 and 2016 is there are so many resources online. I try to remember that help will come to those who search persistently on YouTube. :)

 

Winter Skin

 

When the Damian noticed the toilet was flushing slowly, he looked at me and asked, "Do you need to use the plunger again?" 

He remembered I did it last year and didn't blink at the thought of me using it again. Eight years ago I would have never dreamed of learning to unclog a toilet, because there was always someone to do it for me. Now that we've been our own the better part of two years, I have learned to Google & YouTube my way through many "adventures" around the house. It is reassuring that my four year old sees me as a more capable handy-gal than I used to see myself. 

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When Kevin saw me applying for college this morning, he said I was too old to go back. I explained that I'm not.  

He said I already went. I explained the reasons for checking out the requirements of finishing my bachelor's degree.

He said I would be gone all the time. I told him probably not, but if I were it would be for a good reason.  

This conversation echoes the many we have had and will have about being a secure unit of three. There have been many decisions to make and many opportunities to consider as I map out what the future looks like. I've finally been able to start moving toward the goals that used to be fragile ideas in the back of my head. Honestly, I don't have a lot of choice but to adapt and evolve. Staying the same is not an option. Once we thicken our skin and see the world with new eyes, I believe there is a strength that surprises even our own expectations of who we can be.

I want to make sure I'm raising boys who embrace a life that is not conventional.

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Time to shovel the driveway & officially begin our Christmas season.

-Andrea