Officer's got a brand new beat: Medicine

At 32, Chicago cop walked away from her career to be a doctor

Health & Fitness

January 04, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

When dissecting cadavers, most first-year students at Johns Hopkins Medical School protect their faces by wearing a large plastic shield that looks like a welder's mask.

Mary Schuler just puts on an old pair of safety goggles -- the same ones she used for target practice as a Chicago cop. At 32, Schuler is taking aim at a radically different career, which makes her an object of curiosity among the 118 other aspiring physicians in Hopkins' Class of 2007.

"People say to me all the time, 'You don't look like a police officer,' " notes Schuler. "They expect some really hard, crass, trash-talking woman."

Instead, they get this soft- spoken wisp of a Midwesterner who only reluctantly admits that the lab instructor said she did "a very good job" on her first anatomy exam.

For most of her adult life, Detective Schuler slept with a 9 mm pistol within easy reach on her night table. That gun is in storage now, symbolically replaced by a box of Hopkins-issued human bones that sits at the foot of the bed inside her newly purchased Canton rowhouse. Schuler is a prime example of what some med school administrators have come to call "broken arrow" applicants: those who choose to become doctors later in life, often having followed an unconventional path toward that goal.

"Compared to 10 years ago, people increasingly are exploring other careers between college and medical school," says Dr. Frank Herlong, Hopkins' associate dean for student affairs. "I think they want to make sure they've made the right decision, which is good. It's becoming not only accepted, but encouraged now."

In the early 1970s, five percent of incoming medical students nationwide were age 28 or older. By 1991 that number had grown to 12 percent and continues to climb. Hopkins' own late-bloomer medical school alumni include a former world-ranked welterweight boxer, NFL punter and a fashion model. This year's entry class has four students in their 30s.

Schuler's career change seems especially gutsy, considering that she has a genetic predisposition toward police work. Her father, Nick (who retired on Thanksgiving Day after, by his count, "36 years, one month and five days" on the job), three brothers, an aunt, an uncle and a cousin have all been part of Chicago's long blue line.

Six months before graduating from the University of Illinois in 1994 with a degree in Latin American studies, Schuler took the police-academy entrance exam at her father's suggestion. Why? Well, it was more a matter of "why not?" She had quietly dreamed of becoming a doctor since she was 10, but didn't think she could cut it academically. But becoming a cop was like joining the family business. She'd grown up around holstered guns and table talk about life out on the street.

"There was a level of comfort," recalls Schuler. "It seemed safer to me than going to medical school."

She spent two years walking a beat in a West Side neighborhood that laid claim to having the city's highest homicide rate. That was followed by a decidedly less dangerous stint in the Research and Development Division, helping formulate police policy on domestic violence, date-rape crimes and other issues.

'That was my calling'

During her last three years on the force, Schuler primarily worked on financial frauds, teamed with veteran detective Tom Manaher. He was one of the few confidants who knew Schuler had begun taking science courses on the side with the thought of reviving her dormant dream. She was also volunteering four hours a week at a local hospital. All that on top of the 900-some cases that she and Manaher handled annually.

"A lot of people have a lot of energy and drive," Manaher explains, "but she husbanded her energy. She was able to keep quite a few balls in the air."

The reason for the juggling act was that Schuler had come to feel a bit like the forgers and bunco artists she was arresting. Police work gradually gave her the confidence to solve the mystery of exactly who she was and what she really wanted to be, to take the brake off wheels that had been set in motion half a world away.

In December 1980, three nuns and a lay missionary were murdered by a government death squad in civil-war-torn El Salvador. Mary Schuler subsequently learned of their plight from her fifth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Victory Catholic elementary school.

Something about the story of Jean Donovan, the lay missionary, touched her. Donovan was a fun-loving, 27-year-old former accountant who left the comforts of career and home behind to go help impoverished campesinos. A young girl in Chicago suddenly had her eyes opened to bruising poverty and want. Somehow she got it into her head that one day she'd be a doctor and expand the work of Donovan and her doomed companions.

"If you can feel a calling, that was my calling," Schuler says. "When I look back on my life, it's the only thing I ever wanted to do."

Bombshell change

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