Shifting to Physician: Older MD students bring valuable life experiences into medical training
Laura Gates Feb 23, 2023
For many people, a mid-life crisis might involve buying a hot rod or getting cosmetic surgery. Not so for Michelle LaTurner and her spouse, Hyrum.
“Instead of buying fast cars, we had more kids and went back to school,” joked LaTurner, a first-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine—Northwest-Gary.
A former elementary school teacher in South Chicago, LaTurner is now studying to become a doctor while Hyrum is starting a law practice. Between them, they have eight children, including two still in daycare.
The average age for the IU School of Medicine Class of 2026 is 23.62—about the same age as LaTurner’s stepchildren. When her peers recently gathered for an Urban Medicine Program group photo, she found herself fixing collars.
“I definitely act like the mom,” she said.
While entering medical school later in life has its challenges, most career shifters say the advantages are far greater. Medical students in their 30s or 40s bring broader life experiences and tend to be focused, organized and resilient.
“I know myself much better than I did in my early 20s, and I’ve already had a career that didn’t quite fit,” explained Sarah Hopfer, MA, a former analytical writing instructor at IU whose post-baccalaureate jobs also included emergency medical technician (EMT) and bartender. “I do not have to wonder if I am investing all this time and money in a career I don’t want—I know I want it. I’m in the right place now.”
Some career-shifters bring experience in other health care or scientific fields, making their progression to medicine the logical next step. Such was the case for Jennifer Watters, DPT, who developed an interest in wound care while working as a physical therapist.
Mark Westbroek, PhD, worked in a hematology lab for years and planned to forge a career as a research scientist in cancer drug discovery before realizing “something was missing.”
“Over time, I realized that I was missing the human component of cancer,” said Westbroek, 37, a third-year student at IU School of Medicine—West Lafayette. “I realized that I wanted to be there for the patients and help them through the process of being treated for cancer, not just work with cells the rest of my life.”
Other IU School of Medicine students were in careers that had little to do with medicine. They bring diverse backgrounds in business, education, agriculture, military operations and other fields, yet find their experiences valuable as they pivot to health care.
“I know myself better than I did at 22,” LaTurner explained. “I am more sure of what I want to do and why. I am more resilient because I’ve had to be; I’m more confident in my ability to work hard. Life has taught me to be an excellent problem solver…Now I finally get to do something that is so authentic for me—something that makes me feel so alive.”
The path to becoming a doctor need not be linear. It often takes time for passion and opportunity to align. For these medical students, the journey just makes the calling clearer.
Jay Fiechter: ‘I’m in planting season.’
IU School of Medicine campus: Fort Wayne (MS2)
Former occupation: Farmer
In many ways, Jay Fiechter is still waiting for the harvest. Each spring in his former life as a farmer, he would plant seeds into the carefully prepared soil. The reward for his labor would come months later. He now feels a similar restless anticipation as he sits for hours studying medical sciences. This time, the harvest is years away. It will be reaped when he graduates from medical school in 2025, beginning his second career as an MD.
Read Jay's story.
Mychael Spencer: ‘It’s always been a dream.’
IU School of Medicine campus: Indianapolis (MS1)
Former career: K-12 educator and administrator
Mychael Spencer has wanted to be a doctor ever since he was 10—when he started volunteering at Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis, where his grandmother worked as a mental health clinician. His job was to deliver books, games and other diversions to hospitalized patients. When he was older, he started shadowing physicians. Teaching was meant to be temporary—a way to “give back” in honor of the teachers who saw his potential and changed the trajectory of his life.
Read Mychael's story.
Will Schneider: ‘Aim for it and keep pressing.’
IU School of Medicine campus: Indianapolis (MS1)
Former career: United States Marine Corps/Financial services
At first, Will Schneider was reluctant to tell his colleagues he intended to go to medical school. He had invested four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and begun a career in the investments industry. He was also a married father of three children. What would people think of chasing a childhood dream—requiring years of additional study and training—at this stage of his life?
Read Will's story.
Sarah Hopfer: ‘It’s always the right time to become more oneself.’
IU School of Medicine campus: Terre Haute (MS4)
Former career: Humanities instructor/Bartender
“I’ve been telling folks that, in retrospect, medicine has seemed to be a parallel path in my life from childhood and that the actual diversion might have been my nine-year foray into the humanities,” said Hopfer, who is set to graduate from medical school this May.
Read Sarah's story.
Michelle LaTurner: ‘I finally get to do something that makes me feel alive.’
IU School of Medicine campus: Northwest-Gary (MS1)
Former career: Elementary and special education teacher
Michelle LaTurner was told she could “pick two” of these three: wife, mother, professional. She took the advice given by well-intentioned members of her religious community and tossed aside her childhood dream of becoming a doctor, finding herself, at age 28, a married mother of two with a third baby on the way and supporting her chef husband’s dream of opening a restaurant. When the business and the marriage failed, she was at a crossroads.
Read Michelle's story.
Mark Westbroek: ‘I always felt like something was missing.’
IU School of Medicine campus: West Lafayette (MS4)
Former career: Research scientist/Chemistry instructor
By the time he became a medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine—West Lafayette, Mark Westbroek had a PhD in medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, plus a wife and five kids. His sixth child was born during his medical school years.
Read Mark's story.
Jennifer Watters: ‘Balancing medical school and family is doable’
IU School of Medicine campus: Indianapolis (MS2)
Former career: Physical therapist
Jennifer Watters graduated from high school around the same time many of her classmates at IU School of Medicine were born. As a married mother of two girls and a practicing physical therapist with a doctoral degree, Watters surprised friends and colleagues when she announced she wanted to go back to school to become a physician. In truth, Watters surprised herself.