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A mother’s road to medical school

At the age of 31 and a mother of four, Dawn Armstrong hasn't taken the typical route to the Queen’s School of Medicine.

[Dawn Armstrong]
Dawn Armstrong isn't afraid of a challenge and now is a first-year medical student at the Queen’s School of Medicine. (Supplied Photo)

This article was first published on the Faculty of Health Sciences Dean’s Blog.

When she was working as a welder in northern Alberta after graduating from high school, Dawn Armstrong had no idea that she would one day go to medical school. She wouldn’t even really start to think about pursuing a career in medicine until several years later, when she was in her late 20s with three children working towards a bachelor’s degree at Acadia, double majoring in neuroscience and biology and completing an honours thesis. Now, at the age of 31, Dawn is a mother of four, a strong Aboriginal woman, and a first-year medical student at the Queen’s School of Medicine. 

Dawn’s path is clearly not the one that we typically associate with medical students. But she doesn’t want us to think of her as an exception; she wants us to look at her story and realize that anyone from any background at any stage of life can pursue a medical education.  

While Dawn was growing up in a rural Nova Scotia, her family did not make her feel as if education was something especially important. Her father was a golf pro and her mother was an artist; neither had gone to university and neither ever made Dawn think that she should make a point to earn a degree. 

After high school, then, she did not bother applying to any universities, and instead moved to Edmonton. She did not know anyone there, but she thought of Alberta as a place that had a lot of opportunities. 

At first, Dawn worked as a bartender at a golf course, but her career took a sharp turn after getting to know a regular customer. This man worked as a welder and, while talking about his job one day, he bet Dawn that she couldn’t hack it in welding. Always up for a challenge, she took his bet and accepted a job at Strike Energy. 

Dawn did not take up welding just to win a bet. She considers herself a very hands-on person who likes work that blends problem-solving with manual labour. In many ways, then, welding seemed like it might make for a perfect profession for her. 

She started this job when she was 18 and enjoyed working with her hands and traveling around Alberta and British Columbia on various assignments. The man who had bet her was impressed by her and became a mentor. 

[Dawn Armstrong]
A mother of four children, Dawn Armstrong already had a busy schedule before arriving at Queen's University's School of Medicine. (Supplied photo)

But he was also the person who eventually encouraged Dawn to leave welding. He had been warning Dawn for some time that the work is very hard on the body over the long run. When she became a single mother at 21, Dawn ultimately left welding and switched her career track by earning a certificate from a community college. From there, she worked as an educational assistant, helping learners with special needs. 

Outside of work, Dawn’s life also continued to change, as she got married and started to move around the country with her husband, who is in the Air Force. Eventually, Dawn needed to go back to Nova Scotia to care for her mother after she suffered a severe stroke. 

When Dawn thinks back to this period in her life, she sees the seeds of her interest in medicine being planted. Caring for her mother made her realize how fulfilling the work can be, but she also had two other meaningful experiences that made her consider pursuing medicine. 

First, Dawn had agreed to become a surrogate mother for a couple wanting to have a child. One of the men was a family physician, and she found it reassuring to be able to talk to him throughout the experience. 

This experience taught Dawn just how meaningful doctors can be in people’s lives. She learned that healthcare providers do so much more than make diagnoses and prescriptions: they give peace of mind to those in their care. Dawn wanted to be a source of support for others in the way that this physician was for her.

Secondly, she had started an undergraduate degree program at Acadia University and found herself particularly invested in her biology coursework. For the first time, this made her think that she had a strong interest in science. While pursuing her three-year degree, she had two children, one being the surrogate baby. By the time she graduated she and her husband had three children.  

All of these different experiences – caring for her mother, raising children, surrogacy, and her coursework – made her decide to apply for medical school. 

By the time she reached the interview stage of the admissions process, Dawn was close to the due date for her fourth child (not counting the surrogate pregnancy). When Queen’s offered her the opportunity to interview, she had to ask if they could accommodate her schedule, since the original date they proposed was very close to her due date. 

Asking for this kind of accommodation, though, was scary. What if it hurt her chances at being accepted? What if they just said no and she couldn’t even interview at all? Even if they agreed to help her, would they be annoyed? Dawn had no idea how the school would treat her as an expecting mother. 

To her pleasant surprise Queen’s was more than accommodating. She was able to schedule her interview to after she gave birth, and was assured that every possible arrangement would be made to guarantee her comfort.  Two weeks after giving birth Dawn traveled to Kingston to interview at Queen’s. When she was offered a seat in the class of 2022 a few weeks later, she had no trouble choosing to accept. 

Dawn is well on her way to meeting many of her goals. She has now completed her first semester of medical school, and is completing a few research projects. She aims to be a dermatologist and knows Queen’s will prepare her well for this specialty. 

Dawn’s ability to be a mother and a medical student at the same time is impressive. When asked  how she finds the energy for school, she says that she has the energy because she loves it. In some ways, she sees her classes as a nice reprieve from parenting. “School is my break,” she says with a smile. 

What I love about Dawn’s story is the way that it overturns so many stereotypes about who can and cannot go to medical school. We usually don’t think of people who didn’t go straight to university after high school as going on to medical school. Or people who were young mothers, or people in their 30s, or people who have four children.  But all of these things apply to Dawn, and she is thriving at the Queen’s School of Medicine. 

 As Dawn’s story shows, all are welcome at the Queen’s School of Medicine. 

Dean Reznick thanks Andrew Willson for his assistance in preparing this blog.