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Long road to Cedar Street

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2003 - Winter


The first grandmother to enter medical school at Yale, 40-year-old Karen Morris is where she’s always wanted to be: on her way to becoming a physician.

You might say Karen Sarena Morris’ cover was blown at the White Jacket Ceremony. As young as she looks, the first-year medical student could no longer sustain the fiction of being an ordinary student the moment her four daughters and 2-month-old grandson arrived to watch the annual rite of passage. Morris, 40, may have been on the accelerated track for becoming a grandmother, but it took her a long time to get her white jacket.

Morris had set her sights on medicine as a child. At age 11, she decided to become a doctor so she could take care of her ailing grandmother, who died while Morris was still a teenager. Motherhood at 16 and marriage to a man who frustrated her attempts to enroll in college deflected Morris from her goal. She ran a beauty salon, worked as a secretary and eventually earned a nursing degree. But although she found a certain measure of fulfillment as a nurse, her desire to study medicine never waned. Under the tent on Harkness Lawn on that warm August afternoon, Karen Morris began to realize a dream deferred.

The daughter of an office worker and a police officer in Harrisburg, Pa., Morris was a strong student who seemed destined to be the first in her family to attend college. She did manage to finish high school in 1980 after giving birth during her junior year to daughter Nikki (now 23). But after Morris married the man who had been her boyfriend since fifth grade, now a machinist, she discovered that he opposed her plans to go to college. She studied cosmetology instead, and ran a beauty shop out of their home. Each fall, she proposed starting college, and each fall, she said, her husband pressured her to wait—until the children were older, until finances were less strained.

“As bright as I am, it took me about nine years to realize he was never going to say OK,” Morris recalled during a lunchtime interview at Marigold’s, the medical school dining hall, a few weeks into the fall semester.

By then the mother of five children, Morris at age 29 quietly enrolled at Harrisburg Area Community College. When her husband interfered with her studies, she said, they separated. After working all day as a secretary, Morris would do homework alongside her children at the kitchen table and continue on while they slept, surviving on four hours of sleep. She chose a nursing major, telling herself, “You have five kids. Let’s be realistic: you can’t be a doctor anymore.” She completed her associate’s degree summa cum laude in 1996, and with her children’s encouragement, she enrolled at nearby York College to work toward her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Finding jobs first at a state psychiatric hospital and then at a prison with 3,000 male inmates, Morris enjoyed nursing but craved more responsibility. “It’s one thing to follow through on a treatment plan, and it’s another being the one responsible for formulating that treatment plan,” she said. Her 40th birthday loomed as a deadline in Morris’ mind, and she had only a few years to go. She realized, “If I don’t try this, I’m going to regret it. My heart was set on being a doctor.” And so, while pretending even to herself that her goal was a master’s in nursing, she began taking the prerequisites for medical school. She was too embarrassed to approach the college pre-med advisor, so she searched the Internet to assemble a list of course requirements. She did well in science.

It was online that she first heard of the MCAT. She also discovered the Minority Medical Education Program, a summer enrichment course for prospective medical students. The six-week program is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and offered on 11 campuses including Yale’s. As an African-American, Morris qualified, and in July 2001 she left her hometown and her children for the first time to attend the program in New Haven. By then, she and her former husband were on good terms, and he stayed with their children.

When she took the MCAT a few months before, Morris hadn’t even finished organic chemistry, and she hadn’t had the money for a prep course for the exam. She dreaded getting her scores and was pleasantly surprised when they fell within the competitive range she was shooting for. But as she wrote down her age and listed her children on each application form, Morris thought, “They’re just going to laugh this application off the desk.”

Morris lacked the money to travel to faraway interviews, so she applied to only four schools—and got into three. She chose Yale over Penn State and Pitt; Johns Hopkins rejected her. Morris earned her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in June and now lives in New Haven with her two youngest children, 16-year-old Shar-Dae and 14-year-old Ashley. (Firstborn Nikki is a college graduate with a degree in information systems, and Morris’ 62-year-old mother just started community college in Atlanta.) Morris is financing her education through grants and a loan.

She is awed by the talents of her well-traveled, multilingual classmates, but she reminds herself of her own strengths, including years of experience taking care of patients and confidence gleaned from coping with difficult situations, such as trying (without success) to resuscitate a naked male inmate in a shower room and caring for a prisoner with AIDS awaiting permission to go home to die, word that would come one day too late.

“Even though there are times when I felt really inadequate listening to some of their experiences,” she said of her classmates, “I know that the path I took also gave me so many rich experiences that are going to help me in my practice.”

Cardiologist Forrester “Woody” Lee, M.D. ’79, HS ’83, said Morris was one of just a handful of students who stood out among the 100 participants at the summer program for minority medical school candidates. “It wasn’t just because she was older,” said Lee, who is assistant dean for multicultural affairs and director of the summer program. He said Morris’ enthusiasm and curiosity had enlivened the entire group. When Morris received her certificate at the end of the course, Lee said, “the whole group spontaneously stood up and clapped. Everybody was almost in tears.”

Lee said most people considering a demanding career change in mid-life would decide it was too late. “I think it’s remarkable that she would have the presence of mind to say, ‘This is what I want to do’ and go back and do it. I don’t know where that kind of strength comes from.” He said Morris has what Sir William Osler called aequanimitas, a “calmness amid storm” that serves physicians well. As Lee describes Morris, “Nothing seems to faze her. She’s steady and sure with her voice, with her presence, with her vision of what she wants to do.”

As far as anyone knows, Morris is the first grandparent to matriculate in medicine at Yale, but she’s not the first Yale medical student to begin her studies at 40. According to Associate Dean for Student Affairs Nancy R. Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93—who herself started medical school at age 39—“what makes her unique are her incredible drive and commitment and the odds she’s been up against to come here. … She understands life, and she knows what it means to work hard and face adversity and keep on going. I think she’s going to be a great leader.”

For Morris, how she experiences the daily life of a medical student “depends on the day.” Case conferences are easy to follow; biophysics is not. “Sometimes I think, ‘I can do this.’ There are other days when I think, ‘I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about!’” But those days don’t get her down. “All in all, I am still in awe that I am here, and I’m enjoying it.” YM

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