The medical student peering into a microscope and scribbling notes about a tissue slide she had been studying paused long enough to admit "there are times when I am totally buried under piles of information, and I wonder why I am doing this."
"Then I remember," she said, "that all along in my life, in the back of my mind was the thought that I very much wanted to be a doctor."
Meet Jean Forman--at 46 a grandmother and a first-year student at the USC School of Medicine.
At an age when thoughts of retirement enter the minds of some physicians, Forman is just starting out. And she is not alone.
Carl Gottschling, until a few years ago a fighter jet radar intercept officer in the Marines, is, at age 39, also a first-year medical student at USC.
"I think I'll have a few gray hairs by the time I go into practice," he joked.
Forman and Gottschling reflect what has become a quiet new national trend: Not only are more older people applying for medical colleges, but more are being accepted.
Getting on in years, but kicking up their heals.
"It was about seven years ago, and three of my four kids were in college," Forman recalled. "I had married right out of high school, I had three of my kids in a row, and now I found myself sitting down and asking: 'What am I going to do with the rest of my life?'
"I had never been to college. I went down to Long Beach City College and registered. I didn't tell anybody. For the first time in my life, this was something for me, and it didn't matter what anybody else thought. I took two classes, psychology and accounting, to see if my brain was still working. I got straight A's and wound up going full time. I remember that one day I stopped in the hall and found myself smiling, because being in college was where I wanted to be. After I finished there, I thought I should be practical and become a CPA. I was accepted by the USC School of Business and actually went down and registered.
"Then I came home and started crying, because I had always wanted to be a doctor. We had a family doctor when I was a little girl in Seattle, and when he walked in, you just knew everything was going to be OK. It fascinated me that someone could do that."
Forman's second oldest son, Scott, was then attending the UCLA School of Medicine. She said she figured it would be too late in life for her, and would be too difficult.
"But I withdrew from the business school, and instead started taking science classes at UC Irvine," she went on. "I majored in biology, and got my degree last June." Her classes had qualified as pre med.
The previous September she had taken and passed the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), even though she felt she would be considered too old.
Last year, according to Dr. William Nerlich, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, there were about 3,200 applications for admission to the USC School of Medicine. A screening committee narrowed these down to around 700 for interviews. Of these, only 136 got in. Forman and Gottschling were among them.
For 11 years, until 1981, Gottschling was in the Marine Corps, much of that time spent flying in the back seat of F-4 Phantom Jets.
"You eventually realize, though, that you won't fly forever. And I couldn't envision myself flying a desk.
"After I got out of the service, I got a bachelor of science degree in biology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio," the former captain said. "The thought of becoming a doctor had crossed my mind, but my grades weren't good enough. I knew that my proficiency in science wouldn't have done me much good for the MCAT."
Years earlier, while on a Marine exercise in South Korea, he got to observe service physicians doing what they could in some of the villages. "What we take for granted as basic medical care, and what is the case elsewhere in the world startled me," Gottschling said.
A seed for a new career began germinating.
After Bowling Green, the former officer attended Cal State Fullerton, this time majoring in chemistry. Last spring, older and wiser, he was again graduated, this time well prepared for the MCAT, and now one of the lucky few in this semester's medical program.
"I think my mom in Ohio is probably as happy as I am," he said. "She always told me I could accomplish anything I wanted to."
"There are certainly more older students than there were years ago," said Dr. June Marshall, associate dean of student affairs at the USC School of Medicine. "Not only do they adapt extremely well, but they bring maturity to a class, which is important."
At USC (a typical national example), consider these figures for medical matriculants:
- In the 136-student class of 1981, only six students were over the age of 25, and the top age was 32.
- In the current class of 1991, there are 29 students over the age of 25, and the top age is 46.
At the UCLA School of Medicine, according to a school spokesman, the number of entering students over age 25 (in a class of 140) increased from 15 in 1977 to 20 this year.