Med school at 54

Emogene Gerhard is determined to fulfill her lifelong ambition: to become a doctor. And neither age nor disability can deter her.

By RANDALL FILLMORE, Special to the Times
Published May 15, 2007

LARGO - Most workers in their mid 50s, especially those with 30-plus years on the job and two kids in college, might be dreaming of retirement, but Emogene Gerhard is about to undertake a major career challenge.

She's enrolling in medical school.

Gerhard, 54, is a registered nurse. She has been accepted into an unusual "RN to MD" program at the College of Medicine of the American University of Antigua in the Caribbean.

"I wanted to be a physician since I was a child . . . after I gave up aspirations of being a prima ballerina," says Gerhard, laughing.

She doesn't recall why she settled on nursing school instead of medical school. But the nursing school turned down the 18-year-old's application. And not because of her grades.

"Are you handicapped?" was a question on the application in 1971, a generation before the Americans With Disabilities Act would make it illegal to ask.

She had answered yes, and "They said that I could not be a nurse with a disability like mine. After a personal interview, I was accepted," recalls Gerhard, "but only after I showed them there was nothing a nurse needed to do that I could not do."

Among the tasks at the interview: carrying a large potted plant across the room.

Gerhard was born with a rare condition called femur-fibula-ulna syndrome. She was born without a right leg below the knee and without a left arm below the elbow.

She spent most of the first two years of life in a Chicago Shriners hospital, undergoing surgeries. She has since worn progressively more sophisticated prosthetics for her leg and arm. Now they are sensor-driven.

Her myoelectric left arm does everything she or any other pediatric nurse needs to do. Before heading off to medical school in September, she will get a computerized knee for her leg prosthesis that will adjust her gait.

She graduated in 1974 from Cincinnati's Good Samaritan Hospital nursing program. And she was named Outstanding Handicapped Professional Woman of the Year for 1983-84 by the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

During her career in Ohio and in Florida, including jobs at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and Humana Hospital in Tampa, she has been a head nurse, neonatal ICU nurse, nursing department director, oncology nurse and education coordinator.

She also worked as a professional model a few years back.

So why medical school? Now?

"My children are grown and attending college, so now is the time to accomplish my original goal of becoming a physician," Gerhard says.

How unusual would she be as a newly graduated, 58-year-old doctor, one with a serious disability? Off the charts.

Of the 17,000 annual U.S. medical school graduates, just 3 percent are older than 33 and only 0.2 percent have a disability.

Gerhard will spend 15 months in classes in Antigua, then 18 months finishing the program in Miami, then four years in residency at a U.S. hospital.

She will be 58 when she gets her degree - and will be $150,000 further in debt.

"Not to mention all the high long-distance phone bills while she's in Antigua," says her husband, Leo, who is staying in Largo but plans to visit often when she moves to Miami.

Because little financial aid is available to older students, Gerhard is on a campaign to close the gap. Her attorney has helped set up a fund for donations.

"It's going to be a challenge," says Gerhard, speaking of both the med student workload and the finances. "But I can do it."

Years ago, Gerhard returned to college to take the required premed courses her RN studies had not covered.

"Chemistry, physics, calculus," she lists, counting on the fingers of her left hand. The prosthetic one.

Randall Fillmore is a Tampa freelance writer specializing in medical matters.

Fast Facts:

Back to school

Attorney Bob McCormack has set up a tuition fund for Emogene Gerhard and he can be reached at 727 796-7666 or law@lawpm.com.