People

Med School at 40

Shasta Theodore, Ph.D., brings decades of experience to her role as a medical student


By Alexandra Becker | April 05, 2017

Shasta Theodore is the oldest student at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. Theodore has already completed a Ph.D. and worked on public health initiatives in Africa. So why medical school, now? The second-year medical student, now 42, spoke with Pulse about her nontraditional career path, fasting for answers, and how she hopes to expand access to health care for underserved populations.

Q | You earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and history at the University of Houston and went on to complete a Ph.D. in demography at the University of Pennsylvania. What made you decide to go to medical school?
A | The summer after my first year of graduate school is when I decided I wanted to do health care, but I was thinking nursing. I was sick of school at that point, and I didn’t want to spend the summer working for my professor, so he sent me to Ghana. They had a health project there where nurses were working to figure out how to give rural residents more access to care, so I spent my time traveling with those nurses. They would go and visit families and basically take health care to the families instead of asking people to come to clinics and hospitals. That was revolutionary for me, to make health care accessible in that way. And I just decided, this is what I want to do with my life. I wanted to be relevant like that, and the people appreciated it so much. I had just never seen that kind of gratitude where they would give the nurses chickens and eggs as a way to say thank you, and these are people who are already just barely feeding their own families. The nurses would explain to me that even a small cut on the foot or on the hand, or a headache that goes without treatment, could be life-threatening issues for people in these areas. I just said, you know, I want what I do to matter that much.

When I returned to Penn, I thought I would continue my Ph.D. but also combine that with nursing, but my professor was not impressed by that plan. I think he was afraid that I would go more in the nursing direction and ultimately just drop the Ph.D., and he might have been right. He strongly encouraged me to just focus on the Ph.D., and by the time I was done with it, I was really tired of school. It had been a long journey.

Q | So how did you change the channel?
A | I went to work in South Africa as the director of a health promotion project for adolescents. We were working with children to educate them about HIV and to design programs where they would gain skills to protect themselves and not just fall victim to HIV. The results of the project were not as successful as I had hoped. We tested the children a few years down the road for STDs and there was a really high percentage of them that had a STD, and I just thought, I can’t sit in an office for the rest of my life creating research projects that may or may not work. So I decided I’d leave research to those people who are really passionate about it and good at it.

Q | Can you describe the moment when you realized that your personal passion was leading you elsewhere?
A | I worked really, really long hours, and every day when I drove home it was always after dark. I lived in a beach community and there were hotels not far from my apartment building, and I would pass by prostitutes every day. I remember thinking that it was very clearly God saying, ‘Are you just going to keep driving by them every day?’ So, one day I just stopped, and there were two young girls, 19 and 20, and one of them spoke English, so that’s how I was able to communicate. And I just said, ‘I live right there in that building, do you want to come home and just get something hot to eat and drink and just relax a little bit? And then you can always come back out.’ I didn’t know what else to do, I just knew that God wanted me to stop. At first they said no, but it was cold outside so I gave one of them my jacket and I guess that made them feel like they could trust me, so they agreed to come with me to get something to eat. We talked and I cooked a meal that took a really long time and they got sleepy and ended up staying the night.

I never saw them on the street again, but over a year later, the one who spoke English came into my office and she had sores all over her face and she said, ‘I have AIDS.’ I had never seen AIDS like that before, and I just remember standing there like, I don’t know what to do. I’m the director of an HIV and AIDS project, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to help her. And I thought, am I just here with a title then, doing some research that’s really just going to benefit the University of Pennsylvania in the end? Get us more grant money? I remember feeling very helpless at that moment. And she kept coming back to me. She was also pregnant; she delivered at about eight months and the baby died immediately after. So that story makes me feel most ashamed about my time there. I was there to help in terms of HIV, but the one person who really needed it the most, I couldn’t do much for her.

Q | Your plan was to come back and become a nurse, but here you are in medical school. That must have been a difficult transition.
A | I was in my mid-30s and I thought, if I’m going to do something, I better do it now. So, I resigned from my job and my plan was to find a job here and then go to nursing school part-time so I could pay for it. But I couldn’t get a job anywhere. I applied for job after job after job, the kind of work I had done, research jobs, all of it, and no one would call me back. I got no job interviews. I moved back in with my mom and ended up working as a substitute teacher, and I had a friend who was working on a Ph.D., so she paid me to help her, but my ego took a hard hit. I just kept praying and asking God for a job and finally I decided to fast. I believe very strongly in God and that he has a plan for everybody’s life, and I know now that I just couldn’t hear his plan because I had my own plan.

I fasted for 21 days, and every day I was praying for a job. No food, just liquids. That’s how desperate I was. I felt like my life was out of control. I was thinking that somewhere along the way God was going to say, ‘This job is for you,’ and around day 17, I just said, ‘God, I’m not going to ask you for anything today. You already know what I need, so I’m just going to praise you and just tell you how good you are.’ And in the midst of that, I just heard, ‘Go back to school.’

Six weeks later, I started taking the prerequisite classes for nursing. But something still didn’t feel right. I decided to go on a 40-day fast. I was desperate. But at the end of 40 days, I heard nothing. Then one morning, I was waking up, and I remember talking in my sleep, in that half-awake state, and I just said, ‘No, God. I’m not going to medical school.’ And then I woke up and I thought, ‘Well why did I say that?’ That had never been on the table. I went to class that day, and after my anatomy and physiology course I went to a tutoring session and the woman looked me in the eyes and said, ‘When you finish nursing, you need to go to medical school.’ And I thought, no, I’m too old, it’s going to cost too much, and I’m happy with nursing. But then I talked to her for a little while and she told me she felt very strongly that I was supposed to be in medical school. And that was the same day I was waking up and had that dream. So that next semester, I was at UH taking my prerequisites for medical school.

God just wanted me to get on his plan of going to medical school, because about a month into my time at UH, I went to visit the people I used to work for when I was an undergraduate there, and literally as I was walking out of the office, the dean of the Honors College came out and said, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’re here! We are in need of a sociology professor, would you be interested?’ So then I had my job. Everything fell into place.

Q | What are your goals now? What do you hope to do once you complete medical school?
A | The only thing I know for sure is that I want to continue to work overseas. My husband is from Haiti and when I was teaching at UH we would take undergraduates there every year to do medical work. We’d get doctors and nurses to come along with us. He grew up as an orphan and then became an assistant director of an orphanage that was run by an American nurse. She would have medical care teams visit and his job was to take those teams out to different parts of Haiti. So that’s something that I’m still very passionate about. I want to go to less developed countries and work, but specifically to take students. I really think it’s valuable for American students to see what’s happening in these other countries.

Q | You seem to bristle against the traditional health care model in America, which requires patients to travel to a doctor or nurse’s office, or to a clinic or hospital, for treatment.
A | People always have to come to the most educated and privileged people to get what they need, and to me, there’s something very wrong with that kind of model. We are privileged and we should be taking everything we have, everything that we’ve been entrusted with, and we should be taking it out into the communities, just like those nurses in Ghana were taking it out to the rural areas, because they just don’t have real access to it any other way. We need to develop some type of home health care or community health care, and I don’t think it is enough to have a clinic in a community. I think we need to go to people’s homes.

Q | With so much need in the U.S., why is it important for Americans to continue their work overseas?
A | It starts here. We need to do more of that here, a whole lot more. But it’s also that sense of responsibility. That we’ve been entrusted with so much, and maybe we would not be so dissatisfied with our lives if we were giving more. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at it in terms of a big, philosophical plan, but just that it’s what we are supposed to do. Why else would we be given so many privileges here, when people in other countries are dying from things that we don’t die from here? People are dying from TB, they’re dying from a cut on the hand, and why is that? It’s because we are very selfish. We have so much and we’re so desperate to hold onto it, and I think that makes us very insecure and unsettled, because we’re so worried about losing this very privileged position we’re in. Overseas, you see how simple access to health care can liberate people—they’re just people who want to live, just like us, and I guess maybe what my traveling has helped me know is that there’s this shared understanding across humanity that we want to live productive lives and we want to have families, we want to have close relationships, and what can we do in order to have those things? Health care is just basic. Not having it inhibits us in ways I never imagined before I started traveling.

With that said, I’m not a believer that countries should be dependent, because I’ve seen it. From South Africa I was able to travel to a lot of different African countries and I got to a place where I just said, ‘These countries are too dependent on the West, and that makes their lives so unstable.’ Here in the U.S., we have our own ways of trying to police the world and make other countries more stable, but we’re doing it on our terms, and so while that’s stable for us, it’s not stable for them.

I’ve been given so much. Even though everything that I had planned in my life has not worked out, at very critical moments people came into my life and they shared what they had with me, and every time it put me on a different trajectory that I never would have imagined. So why wouldn’t I want to help do that for someone else? I just can’t think of any other reason why I’m here.

Q | You seem so driven. What keeps you motivated on the especially hard days?
A | I was one of three kids raised by a single mom who didn’t graduate from high school, and my dad didn’t go beyond 8th grade. So many people could have fallen off the tracks just based on those circumstances, but we didn’t. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and a lot of that had to do with my mom. My mom would say to me, ‘What’s the highest degree you can get?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s a Ph.D.,’ and she said, ‘OK, go and get that.’ It was just so matter-of-fact for her, just so simple. She always encouraged me to keep going because, for her, there was no reason for me not to.

Q | You are the oldest and presumably most experienced student in your medical school class. How has this shaped your time here?
A | Most of my classmates are 20 years younger, and they are so much smarter than me. I’m not kidding you! They are sharper and faster. It’s like that time when nobody was calling me for job interviews. It’s been very humbling because I don’t catch onto the information as quickly. I came from history and sociology where you’re just reading all the time and it is mostly just theories, nothing concrete like memorizing the parts of the kidney. I think I’ve made this experience harder for myself because I want to read and I want to talk and discuss things, but there’s no time for that. It’s been a hard transition and emotionally challenging at times. But I think I bring something to the table. I’m patient and I love hearing their stories.”

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