Grandmother becoming a doctor at 51

May 12, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

She served cocktails to gamblers in a Reno casino. And she worked 16 years in the Social Security bureaucracy to support her daughter.

Now, at the age of 51, Gail Fredericks is doing what she wants, not what she must -- becoming a doctor.

When she walks off the stage of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall next week clutching a medical school diploma, the blond grandmother with the explosive laugh will be the oldest graduate in the 187-year history of the University of Maryland at Baltimore's medical school.

"There are doctors who retire at my age because they're burned out," Ms. Fredericks says. "I'm NOT burned out!" With her Mickey Mouse watch and wide, joyful smile, Ms. Fredericks could be a poster child for the medical profession.

She gushes about the prospect of helping people and looks forward to a late-in-life career as a family practitioner.

Not long ago, Ms. Fredericks took time to counsel a young woman who had come to the hospital emergency room. The discussion ranged from the woman's goal of going to law school to the dangers of AIDS.

"I told her, 'You're too wonderful a person to take chances with your life and that's what you're doing having unprotected sex,' " Ms. Fredericks says.

At the end of their conversation, the patient told her: "I wish you could be my doctor."

Few medical schools were willing to take a chance on Ms. Frederickswhen she applied four years ago at the age of 47.

"Some schools were saying, 'You're going to finish your residency at 55. Give us a break,' " she remembers.

"My response was, 'I'm going to practice as long as I'm competent,' " she says.

"People like me have a lot to offer. Even if we don't have the energy of a 25-year-old. We have the life experience and, hopefully, we've learned some compassion in those extra years that a 25-year-old just hasn't had the opportunity yet to acquire."

Nationally, Ms. Fredericks belongs to a select group. Of the 16,000 people entering medical school in the fall of 1992, the last year for which statistics were available, only 795 were 32 or older, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The average age of new medical students was 24.7 that year, slightly higher than a decade earlier.

"Gail has a perspective on life that most medical students do not have," says Dr. Kevin S. Ferentz, one of Ms. Fredericks' professors. "Most of the important stuff [about being a doctor] you can't teach. They either come in with it, or they don't have it. Gail came in with an above-average dose and it showed."

Ms. Fredericks grew up an only child in California. Her father was a department store buyer, her mother a housewife.

In 1960, she enrolled in the theater program at Immaculate Heart College, a small women's school. After a couple of years she got married, had a baby at 20, and dropped out.

When the baby, a daughter, Wendy, was a year old, the marriage broke up and Ms. Fredericks went back to study English at Fresno State.

"I had my daughter. We didn't have any money, but it didn't matter back then," she says.

"It was that time. We were going to change the world through love. There were some social inequities that people believed needed to be corrected."

She pulled baby Wendy in a red wagon in a march on Sacramento when Ronald Reagan was governor to protest the tuition instituted at California colleges.

Ms. Fredericks went on to earn a master's degree, doing her thesis on writer Christopher Isherwood. She moved to Reno and began doctoral work in medieval English, moonlighting as a cocktail waitress at Harrah's casino.

She abandoned graduate school, though, when it became clear that it would be almost impossible to get a teaching job even if she earned a doctorate in English.

In 1974, she applied for work everywhere -- at banks, the government, libraries.

She landed at the Social Security Administration in Reno and worked for 16 years as a claims representative, field representative and later an operations supervisor.

Early on, she also had a second job as a restaurant cocktail waitress.

"I loved it," she says. "It was my job to make their evening as pleasant as it could be.

"I was very grateful for both of those jobs. They put braces on Wendy's teeth. I was able to buy a house."

As Ms. Fredericks reached her mid-30s, her mother was losing a painful fight with cancer. Ms. Fredericks was struck by the insensitivity displayed by one of her mother's doctors, who paid little attention to his patient's wishes not to be kept alive by extraordinary measures.

"I thought about the families who didn't have somebody there," she says.

"It didn't seem to me that I was making that much of a difference as a bureaucrat and [becoming a doctor] seemed to me a valid way of making a difference."

Soon after her mother's death in 1976, Ms. Fredericks made a tentative stab at medical school. The admissions people at the University of Nevada were not encouraging.

"They said, 'No, you'll never get in,' " she says.

Ms. Fredericks says she "moped" for years.

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