A mother of nine is celebrating her graduation from medical school and now plans to become a neurosurgeon. She is living proof that children don’t prevent mothers from pursuing their dreams successfully.
Sarah Merrill started on the path to medical school at Dartmouth College at age 17. While there, she met her husband, got married, and had a daughter who was five months old when she watched her parents graduate from college. Merrill took the Medical College Admission Test with plans to go directly to medical school, but she changed her mind and decided to stay home with her young daughter. That decision appears to have gone well because she and her husband decided to welcome more children.
“We weren’t necessarily going for a large family, in particular, in our planning, but that is what we did,” Merrill told Good Morning America. “We ended up having four daughters and five sons, and we had all nine of those kids in 12 years.”
While raising their children, Merrill also worked part-time in medical research and when her youngest turned two, she and her husband discussed and prayed about her returning to school. They decided it was time for her to follow her dream of becoming a doctor, and they wanted to make sure the kids were all okay with that decision.
“Before I even applied to medical school, we had a big family meeting and everybody got to voice their opinion about it and we explained to them what it would mean,” said Merrill. “They all gave it a big vote of support at the time.”
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She was accepted into the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine and the family relocated to Arizona so she could attend. Everyone was on board with the move and her husband was able to keep his job and work remotely. Her mother also moved to Arizona to help them out.
“I was 34 and I decided to go back and start taking some more recent coursework and I had to retake the MCAT,” she said. “I remember studying for the MCAT when my two youngest were two and three years old and my two-year-old would climb on me like a mountain while I was trying to take practice tests.”
Once in school, she noticed that her hard work in her own studies inspired her children to do the same. She was the only mother in her class but by the time she graduated, three more women in the program were mothers.
“A lot of times my teenage daughters would say, ‘Hey, mom, let’s have a homework party,’ so that’s what we do for fun,” she said. “We’d have snacks and they’d be doing their homework and I’d be studying for medical school.”
She also noted that her 11-year-old daughter now wants to become a surgeon and she once overheard her teenage son telling his friends, “My mom’s so cool. She’s going to be a brain surgeon.”
Now, Merrill and the family will make another move so that she can complete a neurosurgery residency at Indiana University. She will become a member of a rare group — just five percent of board-certified neurosurgeons are women, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Dr. Michele Halyard, a radiation oncologist and dean of the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, said she is confident that Merrill will succeed. “If you can make it through having nine children and keep your sanity, neurosurgery residency should be a piece of cake because there’s no amount of stress that you can’t handle.”
So far, Merrill has noticed that motherhood has helped her to connect with a lot of her patients, especially during her pediatrics and OB/GYN rounds. She also believes that waiting to go to medical school made her appreciate and enjoy it more.
She wants other women and mothers to know that they can achieve their dreams too. “Set the goals that are what you’re really passionate about, that you would love to do and want to do, and once you’ve set that goal, then it helps to think small. If you know what your priorities are, focus on the next step and then you’ll get where you want to go.”
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