Like many women of her generation, Jan Duke gave up her dream of medical school when she married and started a family. But at the age of 48, she changed her mind…
She had always wanted to be a physician, but life led her down a different path.
“Periodically in your life, you have times when you reevaluate what you’re doing... whether or not you want to continue or make a change,” she said. “And when I had those times in my life, I would always think ‘medical school,’ and then I would sigh and say, ‘no, not right now.’”
But sometimes life unfolds in unexpected ways, and it finally allowed Janice Duke, M.D., associate professor, obstetrics and gynecology, to realize her life-long dream at the age of 52.
Ozzie and Harriet
Duke grew up in small-town Illinois during the 1950s. Her father was a physician and her mother was a “professional volunteer.” It was a relatively quiet, peaceful upbringing.
She attended Wittenberg University, earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She had every intention of going to medical school, but something happened that she hadn’t foreseen:
She fell in love.
Duke married her husband, Bruce, before her undergraduate senior year. In doing so, she felt that she had to choose between being a wife and mother and becoming a doctor.
“I grew up with Ozzie and Harriet,” she said. “I didn’t think I could work and have a family at the same time.”
So Duke put her dream on the back burner, getting her master’s in biochemistry at Ohio State University instead. After her graduation, the Dukes moved to Michigan so Bruce could teach at Albion College. Janice found a job with General Foods doing research and development for the Post cereal brand.
Early in that position, Duke became pregnant with the couple’s first child.
“The policy at the time was that you had to leave your job if you got pregnant,” she said. Women had to stop working when they were past the first trimester. Not wanting to leave the workforce, Duke challenged tradition. With the help of a supportive supervisor, she was able to change the policy for the company nationally and continue working.
The Dukes eventually moved to Kettering. Janice held a few jobs over the years, including high school chemistry teacher and pharmaceutical saleswoman. With two daughters, a loving husband, and a career, she had a fulfilling life.
“But I always kind of regretted not going to medical school,” she said.
Dusting off the dream
In 1990, the Dukes attended a neighborhood block party. They fell into conversation with a neighbor who told them about a 52-yearold woman who had sued a university in Indiana for age discrimination, won, and was finally admitted.
“I had really just given up the idea of med school by that point in my life,” said Duke. “I was 46 and, at that time, everyone thought you couldn’t go if you were over 40. But when I heard that story, I thought, ‘Hey, I’m not 52 yet.’”
“My husband and I just looked at each other, and I knew I had to try.”
Duke was admitted to Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine and began classes in 1992 at the age of 48. In a class of 83 students, she was the oldest.
She dove into her studies headfirst, becoming very active with her class. She impressed the faculty and her peers, serving as class officer all four years. She said she never felt any prejudice or that she was treated differently because of her age.
Patients, however, were often confused by Duke’s maturity. Sometimes, they thought she was the attending physician because she was the oldest in a group. Sometimes, they would look to her for confirmation of a more senior, but younger physician’s diagnosis.
“They didn’t know quite what to do with me,” she said.
Her studies also allowed her to bond with her daughters. When she started medical school, her youngest, Rebecca, was a senior in high school and her oldest, Kelly, was a sophomore in college. The three often found themselves doing homework at the same time. Rebecca even brought home a fetal pig for Duke’s birthday that year, and the two dissected it together.
“It was so sweet,” said Duke. “She had to work with her biology teacher to get it for me.”
Duke made it through medical school with hard work and determination. She found that she had to study a little differently than she did in her younger days. She relied less on memorization and more on visual, hands-on experiences. Her family helped accommodate long hours of studying by picking up extra chores around the house.
She continued to do well, choosing obstetrics and gynecology as her specialty. When she accepted her diploma in 1996, she was fourth in her class.
“Being a nontraditional student didn’t intimidate me,” she said. “You never stop learning no matter what you do in life. So, in a way, we’re all nontraditional students.”
A teacher’s travels
Since her graduation, Duke has incorporated two of her passions into her medical career: teaching and traveling.
She’s practiced medicine on at least three continents. She spent time on a Navajo reservation out West doing obstetrics and gynecology work and has made two trips to Africa, where she worked in a small hospital on the slopes of Mt. Kenya.
“I get such good feelings when I think about Kenya,” Duke said. “It’s a beautiful country, and I enjoyed working there.”
Her time in the Kenyan hospital made her feel fortunate to be born in the United States. She saw firsthand how poverty and diseases like AIDS and malaria can ravage a country.
“The people are very poor, and there’s a huge medical need, but they never act like they are poor,” she said. “People are so willing to share what they have and open up their doors to visitors.”
She also learned a great deal about resource allocation. Because resources were so hard to come by at the hospital, Duke had to learn to determine where they would do the most good.
“It’s hard when you have 10 people with AIDS, but you only have enough medicine for one,” she said.
Back home in the states, Duke is busy sharing her talents with others. She sees patients at Miami Valley Hospital on a daily basis, both in her private office and with residents and medical students. In her role as a member of the medical school faculty at Wright State for just over a decade, her teaching encompasses lectures, research, and clinical mentoring in the clinic, labor and delivery, and the operating room. As an associate professor, Duke lectures in courses on anatomy and reproductive health. She also started the obstetrics and gynecology club for the medical students.
However, she prefers teaching in the clinical setting as opposed to lecturebased courses. As director of gynecology for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology she continues to look for new ways to teach medicine. A new clinical arena is robotic surgery, and she has started to perform robotic surgery for her patients with her partner. In the near future she looks forward to being part of teaching robotics to the residents.
“I’ve always loved teaching,” she said. “It gives me energy and makes me feel younger.”
Duke has found a way to combine both her love of teaching and her love of traveling. Each February, she takes a group of medical students to Bolivia to expose them to international medicine. She works side-by-side with the students there as they staff a clinic in the Amazon River basin. The clinic provides free routine patient care to those without the ability to pay for such services; and the work is done almost entirely in Spanish.
Though most of her travel these days involves visiting her daughters and grandchildren, Duke still has one trip on her bucket list.
“I would love to visit Antarctica,” she said. “I want to see the penguins.”
Although her road to medicine was long and winding, Duke said the payoff was well worth it.
She loves seeing patients year after year, getting to know them and their stories. She loves delivering babies, seeing the excitement on their parents’ faces. She thinks surgery is “so fascinating” and can make an immediate impact on someone’s life.
Most of all, Duke loves to see a patient with a problem and fix it.
“Not that anything I do is really a miracle, but being able to help someone is really gratifying,” she said.
Duke still loves to learn. She often finds herself reading medical journals or websites in her free time. She hopes that her trips to Bolivia will improve her Spanish.
Duke’s passion for medicine and her determination to follow her dreams inspire those around her. Her daughter Rebecca, the one who got her mother the birthday pig, later graduated from medical school herself. Others have told Duke that they read an article about her graduation in the Dayton Daily News, and it motivated them to do something they hadn’t thought they could.
Duke continues to encourage others to hold on to their dreams. She tells them it can be difficult to do what you want to, but that you should never give up.
“It’s still miraculous to me that I did this because I had given up on my dream,” said Duke. “But I really believe that anything is possible.” VS