FULLERTON — In a young life filled with troubles, the worst times were when she sat by helplessly as her little brother's chest seized up with asthma.
"There were times when my brother would have an asthma attack and throw up blood and I thought my brother, my little baby brother, was going to die," Nikki Pinkerton recalled. "That's why, as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor. . . . I was driven."
Pinkerton grew up poor, raised in part by an ailing grandmother, discouraged by an insensitive and ignorant guidance counselor, set back by teenage motherhood and temporarily disabled by a life-threatening condition.
Now it's her turn. At age 34, the former high school dropout will receive her bachelor's degree in biological sciences with honors Sunday at Cal State Fullerton. Then, in the fall, the Anaheim mother of three, who was offered 15 full scholarships to top medical schools across the country, will attend Yale University. Her husband, an Anaheim police detective, will quit his job, and the Pinkertons will move to New Haven, Conn., while mom becomes a doctor.
It's a rare mother who gets to hear her 16-year-old call her amazing, but that's the way Pinkerton's son Nicholas, an honors student himself, describes the woman who has spent the past several years sitting with him and his siblings in the evenings, doing homework together.
"I'm extremely proud of my mom," Nicholas said. "She's a full-time student and a full-time mom. She takes care of us, takes us to soccer practice and gets all A's."
It's a life Pinkerton fashioned out of unpromising beginnings.
"My parents were divorced, and I was raised by my mom and my grandma," said Pinkerton, born Faith Monique Rodriguez. "My mom worked as a retail salesclerk. We lived in an apartment on Topaz Lane in Placentia, and things were beyond tight. We didn't have medical insurance, and we simply couldn't afford medical care."
The family lived on the minimum wage earned by Pinkerton's mother, Faith Toon, who is one of Pinkerton's biggest fans.
"Even when we were so desperately poor, living from paycheck to paycheck and things were very hard, Nikki, my first-born daughter, always was the protector," Toon said. "She never told me how frightened she was.
"She always had empathy and wanted to be the healer. When she was about 6 years old, she found a little baby bird on her way home from school. It had a broken leg, and she insisted that we nurse that bird. So we learned what to feed it and how to fix its leg with a splint."
When Pinkerton was a sophomore in high school, she sought advice from her guidance counselor.
The session with the counselor was devastating. "He told me, 'Some dreams are just too big for some people,' " Pinkerton said.
At 16, with her hopes crushed, she dropped out of school. A year later, after passing an exam for her high school diploma, she married her childhood sweetheart and, soon after, was pregnant with her first son, Nicholas.
Her husband, Brett Pinkerton, joined the Air Force and the couple moved to Ogden, Utah, where he was based. There they had their second son, James.
Nikki Pinkerton raised her sons, worked at a stock brokerage firm and all but forgot that old doctor dream.
Then, during her third pregnancy seven years ago, after the family had moved back to Orange County, she was stricken with idiopathic thrombocytopenia, a life-threatening condition that destroys blood platelets and induces early labor. To reduce the chances of dying, an abortion was highly recommended.
Instead, Pinkerton opted for medication that prevented premature labor and spent the last two trimesters in bed.
"I was afraid and I knew I could die and lose my daughter, but what can I tell you? I'm a mom," she said. "I already felt her kick inside me, and I just believed that everything was going to be OK."
She gave birth to Mandy, now 6, and emerged from the episode with this revelation: "Life is just really short and really precious, and you have to do the things that you want to do because you just don't have that long."
So, with the support of her husband and children, she went to Fullerton College, later transferring to Cal State Fullerton, where she has a 4.0 grade point average.
Besides her full course load, she conducts research at Caltech through the Minority Access to Research Careers program, examining the development of the nervous system of chicks and quails.
She said she plans to do cancer research at Yale while becoming a physician. Afterward, she said, she hopes that her title will give her a voice in health care reform, her chance to change the system that left her grandmother, who suffered from diabetes, and brother without medical care. Her grandmother died two years ago; the brother whose life she feared for as a little girl is 29 now and a Cal State Fullerton history student.
"Medical care is a basic human right, and the doctor takes care of people, regardless of income levels, and asks questions, affects change," Pinkerton said.