62-Year-Old Medical School Graduate Reflects on His Journey

Donovan Recny

Disclosures

October 28, 2021

The stereotypical image of a medical student is one of a strapping, caffeine-addicted 20-something-year-old. Often, starting medical school marks the beginning of a lifelong dream. 

But for Ridgewood, New Jersey, resident Michael Butler, 62, earning his MD was never part of the plan. After a multifaceted career as a US Navy submarine driver, a business consultant, and an EMT, Butler graduated from Trinity School of Medicine in the Caribbean nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Beyond overcoming the challenges of completing a medical degree during a pandemic, Butler also struggled with ageism and isolation. Medscape recently connected with Butler on his journey to becoming a doctor.

Image 1. Michael's son, Alex, a fellow medical school graduate, helps his father don the ceremonial green hood.

You didn't start your career in medicine. Why did you choose to join the US Navy?

My dad worked for the Northrop Grumman aerospace and defense company. He was involved in the space program and built the lunar module, which is in the Smithsonian now. As a kid, a military element was always floating around and I decided, no question, that I was going to be a pilot in the Air Force. 

That was my truth until the 10th grade, when my eyes went bad. My fallback plan was to participate in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs that help you apply to the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The Navy was the only one that accepted me. It was a series of missteps, I guess you could say, that got me into the Navy. I don't regret it. I volunteered for submarine service — a fast attack submarine based in Charleston, South Carolina. 

After your military service, you had medicine on your mind but went into business consulting instead. What led you there?

I was looking for something that had a community service component to it. It was important to me to maintain that aspect of the military even after I left, and the idea of practicing medicine popped into my head. I tried to study on deployment and that wasn't very successful. I took the MCAT, and I did well on two of the three sections and very poorly on the third. 

The feedback was that I had to go back to school. But I was impatient — I was already accepted to a good business school. I was young and I wanted to get going. Honestly, I wanted to go and meet girls. I had a lot of fun early on as a consultant, and I actually met my wife at work. The first day I went in to interview for my job in New York City, she was the person in charge of finance — mission accomplished. So I ended up going down a different path, but that interest never went away.

After all of that success, why go into medicine?

A friend of mine told me, "You really have to join the emergency services here in town." He thought I'd find it rewarding, and it piqued my interest because I could volunteer and maintain a job. 

I became an EMT in my 30s and started riding in town. That re-whetted my interest in medicine. And then my son, who was very young at the time, expressed an interest in medicine, too. Later, he became an EMT as well and we both served together. He went on to earn his degree in neuroscience, and we always joked that if he went to med school, I would too. 

Well, guess who ended up going to med school? After my son got accepted, I was like, "Well, damn, I guess I'm doing this." But what it really came down to was a conversation that my wife and I had. After the kids moved out, I was in a job that I was no longer interested in. I was bored. So we said, "Okay, what do we do now? What is the next phase of life for us? Retirement in Florida? I don't think so." And that was it. I decided to apply to medical school. 

Along with being away from home, your family, and the country by studying overseas, what was the hardest thing about medical school? 

The hardest thing for me was the loneliness, especially early on. People were like, who are you and why are you here? There was no subset or group for the older students. 

On weekends, my wife and I would just talk on Skype all day. She would be sitting at my desk, essentially, while I studied or did homework. But medicine — it's not complicated. It's not like advanced mathematics. It's the pure volume of information that I find the most challenging about medical school. There's a million sources of information for medical students, but there are only 24 hours in a day.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect you personally throughout this process? 

When COVID started, no one really knew what it was. It's a virus, it's a bad flu, it's something else entirely. We were all dismissed from school at the drop of a hat. From one standpoint, it worked out, because I needed to take the USMLE Step 1 exam. 

While the world started figuring out COVID, I tried to study at home in New Jersey. Another thing that ended up being great: My kids sequestered at home, too. But I will say, it wasn't the ideal studying environment. At 6 PM, me and my two kids stopped studying and played ping pong, for example. I never thought I'd have the opportunity to spend quality time with my children while I was still in school. But we all slid with our studies. The training really needed to be in a hospital, and I think my opportunity to do that was severely reduced by COVID. From a training standpoint, it was very limiting.

What are you planning to do with your hard-earned medical degree?

Since I missed Match Day for residents, I'm waiting to hear back about applications. I'm trying to see if I can get a position at a local medical school that is building out the clinical training skills area. I saw young MD students who had no clinical skills, and that's what I'm interested in helping them develop. 

I used to train EMTs — many of them were 17-year-old kids. And like the kids I trained, a lot of young people in medical school had no hands-on experience with patient care, making med school that much harder. It's not ideal when you're suddenly in a situation where you are expected to examine, touch, and treat a patient. Even if I can't do it myself, I'd love to help teach that.

What advice would you give for a person beginning the journey to becoming a physician?

Some of them view this as a job. And it's a good job, but if you don't have a real passion and a calling for it, it's pretty damn hard. I think the people who viewed this as a job did not make it through school. Being passionate about practicing medicine isn't something your parents can make you do. You have to bring a driving desire to do this. 

I have a much higher regard for people who have an "MD" after their name because I can appreciate the hard work they put into not only med school but residency, too. I appreciate the kind of commitment it took to accomplish that, to get those letters after your name. It's a daunting task. They have a passion for it. And if you have that passion, then you should go for it. 

Even though I can't practice medicine right now, I still have the opportunity to serve. I'm incredibly proud of that.

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