MOTHER'S DAY SPOTLIGHT
WATCH: HEALTH FIRST DERMATOLOGIST VANESSA JOHNSON, MD, is continuing a legacy in medicine that began with her grandmother, Marie Hoffman, who was ranked first after her first year of medical school at what is now Wake Forest University.
Empowerment, says Dr. Vanessa Johnson, comes from women at the top saying, “You can do this.”
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – When Marie Hoffman of Melbourne got into medical school at Wake Forest University in the mid-1950s, she knew she’d have to outwork the boys to stand out. She was one of just three women in a first-year class of 54. Motherhood was some ways off, but never in doubt. At the end of that first year, she was ranked No. 1 in her class.
When her granddaughter Vanessa graduated from Satellite Beach High School about 50 years later, the mix of women physicians had changed very much. Like her grandmother, she would go on to medical school, this time at Vanderbilt University.
Unlike her, she was among a perfect mix of women and men. Motherhood was some ways off, but not in doubt.
For Mother’s Day, Health First Dermatologist Vanessa Johnson, MD, and her grandmother visited inside Dr. Johnson’s Cocoa Beach office to consider medicine and motherhood over three generations.
Medicine is perhaps the most ambitious profession any young person may entertain. Those who apply must have excelled as undergraduates, and the acceptance rate into traditional U.S. medical schools is still low: fewer than half of all applicants get in.
As many as 1 in 6 who do will not graduate. Those who do then have residencies and further training that take longer than their formal schooling, and student loan debt surpassing $200,000.
As a mid-century woman, there was the additional hurdle of sex.
“My own grandmother had to take charge of the farm when my grandfather broke his hip,” Hoffman remembered. “She was very forceful – and successful. My mother and all of her sisters were very strong women.”
“So when it came time for me, I realized that the situation at that time was that females had to excel in order to even be considered for medical school. And so I took that as a challenge, not as a stumbling block, and devoted myself to my studies so that I would have the credentials to be considered.”
Dr. Johnson, a class president at Satellite Beach High, said she began considering a career in medicine in high school, in part “because I had this amazing woman and mother to really pave the way – it made me feel empowered.”
Facing the Unexpected
Dr. Johnson keeps her grandmother’s black physician’s bag in her office. In it, there’s a stethoscope, ophthalmoscope, reflex hammer, portable blood testing kit, even a head mirror. The bag and its equipment serve to remind her of the legacy she inherited – her own family history – as much as it does the great strides medicine has made.
After a strong start in medical school – the strongest, by at least one measure – Marie Brewer married the love of her life, Paul Hoffman. Her new husband was in school many miles away to become an engineer. After her second year of medical school, Marie Hoffman decided to take a year off when expecting her first child. After giving birth to a daughter, she welcomed five additional children and made motherhood her focus from there on out.
“I made the decision that family came first. It was a very difficult decision to make, but I did make that decision. And I missed medical school very much, but I still feel that was the right decision,” she said.
“And so I’ve often said that I left to start my own little private practice with six children.”
Dr. Johnson’s schooling wasn’t interrupted like that, but she too faced a professional decision as she imagined her future – which practice made the best allowances for motherhood.
“Originally, I wanted to do neurosurgery, and I did four years of neuroscience research, but as I got into training and clinicals, I was with the neurosurgeons when their pagers would go off all the time.
I thought, ‘That’s going to be hard as a mom.’ I started to reflect, and I ended up reaching out to female physicians and people who I respected, who were strong mothers and able to care for their families.”
In the end, she decided on dermatology and a work-life balance that has resulted in “getting to love what I did, but then, also getting to go home and be present with my family.”
In the 1980s, Hoffman learned that the Florida Institute of Technology offered advanced programs in clinical psychology. With half of her brood out of the nest and the rest well occupied with school, she started – and completed – the master’s degree program. But about that time, her husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
With two teenagers still at home, Hoffman decided to do her best to “keep things on an even keel and normal” for her family, and once again she decided against joining the professional ranks.
Sellers Paul Hoffman died at the age of 49. The couple had been married 26 years.
“Life comes in different forms, and you take advantage of what opportunities you have,” Hoffman said. “Something may come to send you down a different path. Accept it, and be happy with the life that you have, the blessings that you have.”
“I think I’ve used my medical knowledge and a bit of everyday life to become a good listener for my friends and fellow church members.”
“She’s really the glue that holds our family together,” Dr. Johnson reflected. “And it’s such a gift.”
The Women Who Went Before
“I don’t know if I could have done what my grandmother did,” Dr. Johnson said. “As strong women go, Grandma sets the bar high.”
And she set a high bar for the lives who followed. Among her grandchildren, there are medical and law degree holders, even doctorates.
“That comes from women at the top saying, ‘You can do this.’ I’m grateful,” she said. “I’ve got two daughters now, and my message to them is always, ‘You can do this.’ That perpetuates itself, and it has led to a much more equal playing field.”
“Mothers have this unique gift – we’re specifically poised, I think, to be nurturing as well as empowering. On Mother’s Day, I celebrate the women who came before, and I think about how we can keep that going to the next generation.”
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