Monday Feature: Following a dream; ex-roughneck goes to med school

Diane Sivald

Gail Nichols was a roughneck on the oil wells in Texas and a heavy equipment operator in the chemical industry. She was a dishwasher, bartender, waitress, Spanish interpreter and hospital aide.
Now she wants to be a doctor.
Nichols dreamed of being a doctor as a child but she said her life took so many turns she thought the dream was unattainable until she applied to medical school at age 44.
“I just want to help people,” she said.
Despite her professors’ concerns that she was too old, Nichols applied to four medical schools after completing a degree in biology at Winona State; she was accepted to three.
Now Nichols, 46, a second-year medical student at the University, is the oldest member of her class. She began college in 1968 as pre-med student and plans to complete her residency in 2003.
Nichols was almost too old to apply. “If you’re getting up into the mid 40s or the 50s … there is a point of diminishing return,” said Donald W. Robertson, associate dean of Admissions. “There is a point at which you have to seriously consider age.”
However, Robertson said age is not a determining factor. He said they look for applicants who have “demonstrated academic focus” and who have a “unique set of attributes.”
And Nichols said her life experiences have been unique.
From oil rigs to med school
After high school, Nichols went to her father’s house in Texas. She planned to stay only a few months but instead stayed for 12 years. She tried college several times and bounced around to different jobs. Then a friend made a $100 bet with her that he had a job no woman could do. He was a roughneck on the oil wells, which is someone who goes in when the oil wells are not working and fixes the problems.
Her friend stipulated that she had to last for two weeks to win the bet. Nichols lasted much longer.
Nichols said the men on her crew were all Mexican-Americans, and the first day on the job they talked about her in Spanish, not realizing that Nichols, also Mexican-American, understood every word they said.
“They said some pretty ugly things when I came on,” Nichols said. “They thought I didn’t understand them. So I let them talk it out, and at the end of the day I let loose in my Spanish. I said if I ever heard them talking about me like that again they would get it upside the neck with a wrench.”
From then on, Nichols said they treated her like a sister. She worked that job for a year, collected her $100 and left in search of more stable work.
Nichols’ next job would be her career for many years. She landed a job as a roustabout — a heavy equipment operator — in a chemical plant, first in Texas and then in Minnesota.
Nichols quit her job at the chemical plant in Minnesota after bringing a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company. It would be four years before she would win the suit — a financial settlement she could not disclose.
Meanwhile, the 39-year-old single mother didn’t have a job. She said she knew she would have to start her life over and didn’t know what to do. A friend told her she should go to college. Two days after leaving her job, she enrolled in her first class.
Starting over was nothing new to Nichols. Change was among the only constants in her life.
The early years
The daughter of a police chief, she grew up in South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, moving from town to town. She said her father and “his posse” would clean up crime in one town, and then he would move his family to the next town. Nichols lived that lifestyle until age 11, when her parents divorced.
After the divorce, Nichols said she moved with her mother and five siblings to Lake City, a town in southeastern Minnesota. Her mother struggled to provide for her family by working minimum wage jobs. At 12, Nichols went to work after school and on weekends to help her mother pay the bills.
“I was a dishwasher at a little restaurant called the Snack Shop,” Nichols said. “My paycheck was $21 a week. I kept $6, and my mother took $15.”
Nichols didn’t mind helping her mother pay the bills and she never considered her family poor. After all, Nichols said, being poor is an attitude. Consistent laughter and happiness remained a staple in her family life.
Now Nichols, a single mother, is struggling to make ends meet while she’s in medical school.
Nichols said she feels guilty about the financial hardship on her son “every day, every single day,” but said she is able to reconcile those feelings.
“I say that we’re fine,” Nichols said. “We’re healthy. We eat. The bills get paid. We survive.”
Her 17-year-old son Adam works part-time to help pay the bills but considers that an advantage. “With my mom in college, sometimes there’s a lack of money, but I know that in the future I’m going to appreciate that,” Adam said. He said he doesn’t feel deprived by the lack of money and considers himself more responsible because his mother is in college.
Sometimes, Adam said he worries about the stress of medical school on his mother but is confident she will succeed.
“Medical school is really hard, but I know she’s been through a lot harder times.” Adam said. “I know she can handle it.”
An uphill battle
Nichols has often been the exception to the rule: She was the only woman on the oil-well crew, she was one of four women working at the chemical plant, and now she is the oldest student in her med school class.
Nichols said, “I’ve had several students come straight out and say, ‘How old are you anyway?’ and then follow-up with ‘Oh my God, you’re older than my mom.'” However, Nichols said that is the exception. Generally, she said, her classmates are very supportive.
“Ages are immaterial,” said Annie Lent, a 24-year-old and second-year medical student. “I think there are a lot of older medical students who can offer way more than a younger student, and I think they can teach the younger students a lot about life.”
And some of Nichols’ colleagues consider her age an asset.
“Gail’s had some rough knocks, she’s been through it,” third-year medical student, Perry Malcolm, 40, said. “Younger people won’t be able to empathize like Gail will. She’s very humble, and as a doctor she will offer wisdom, humor and compassion.”
Associate Dean Robertson said older students often have an advantage in medical school. “The older people tend to be more focused,” he said. “They’re more mature. They’ve had more life experiences.”
Despite the advantages older students may have, Nichols said she regrets not finishing college earlier in her life.
“In retrospect, if I had done it right the first time, and completed college, I could have been a doctor for 20 years now.”
Now at age 46, Nichols fights an uphill battle to keep up the pace in medical school.
“My actual learning process has slowed down,” Nichols said. “I don’t learn as quickly or retain as much as I did in my 20s. And I don’t know if it’s my age, but when I get up at six in the morning and home from school at five, I’m beat,” she added.
“I don’t have the stamina to put in two to three hours of studying at night, every night, like some students do.”
To compensate, Nichols studies on the weekends. Usually, she’s awake and studying by 6 or 7 a.m., she said.
Once she completes her residency, Nichols plans to practice medicine in a rural setting.
“But not too rural,” Nichols said. “I don’t intend to be paid with a chicken or a pig. A population of 40,000 to 70,000 people would be fine.”
Nichols also has a specialty in mind.
“I’m thinking of being an internist with geriatrics so that I can be with my buddies,” Nichols said. “When I get out, they’ll all be my buddies.”