By Jane Erikson
Janet Vargas will never forget that day in 1995 when she watched her oldest son open the letter from the UA College of Medicine. “I’ve been accepted!” Bert Vargas told his mother.
Nor will she forget her son’s words to her, once they got through with the hugs and congratulations: “Well, Mom, when are you going to go to medical school?”
Her answer was, perhaps, predictable: “Oh no, I’m too old for that.”
But Janet Vargas had dreamed of becoming a doctor ever since she was a little girl who suffered repeated bouts of pneumonia. The family doctor came to her house on his way to work in the morning and stopped by again on his way home at night.
As a high school student in El Paso, still holding fast to her dream, she volunteered more than 1,000 hours as a hospital candy striper. But when it was time for college, she had to pay her own way. College and medical school seemed beyond her reach. So instead, she became a teacher.
In 1991 – Vargas was then a science teacher at Mansfeld Middle School in Tucson – she and a friend participated in the College of Medicine “Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance.” Her friend told her she had decided to give up teaching to become a perfusionist.
“I told her if I were 20 years younger, I would go to medical school,” Vargas recalls. “And then, a few years later, I became 20 years younger.”
Make that five years later. By then Vargas was working as a counselor at Valencia Middle School, where Linda Don, MEd – then director of the UA College of Medicine’s Office of Minority Affairs – was in charge of a student health fair. Vargas helped with the fair, and Don noted Vargas’s knowledge and skill with talking to students about health-related topics.
“You are such a natural at that. Have you ever thought of going to medical school,” Don asked her.
“And I said, ‘Oh, that was years ago,’” Vargas recalls. “’That dream has died.’’”
But Don’s persistent encouragement brought Vargas’s dream back to life. Don pushed Vargas to enroll in the UA’s six-week Minority Medical Education Program (now the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program), a project of the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“I stayed up all hours studying physics and all the stuff I hadn’t studied for so long,” Vargas recalls. “At the end of the course, I said to myself, ‘I think I can do this. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think I can do this.’”
Then a guidance counselor at Catalina High Magnet School, which offers preparatory classes and training for students interested in health careers, Vargas enrolled at the UA, taking classes in biology, organic chemistry and physics. “It was a great, great experience,” she says.
In 2001, Janet Vargas got to open her own acceptance letter from the UA College of Medicine. She was 51.
Don, who is now the College of Medicine’s assistant dean for student and educational affairs, considers older students “a wonderfully special group. They introduce an important, needed element to the broadly diverse classes we recruit each year. Older students have tremendous life experience – they can help their younger classmates understand the life phases and needs of patients from a variety of age groups.”
Janet Vargas completed medical school in 2006 – the college offered a five-year plan then, and Vargas’s attentions were focused for a while on her son Bert, who was with the Air Force at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11.
“It gave me time to get adjusted to having a kid who was going into a war unlike any other war,” Vargas says.
Bert Vargas received his MD from the UA College of Medicine 1999. He is now a neurologist specializing in traumatic brain injury and headache at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. Ryan is with the Army in Fort Bragg, NC, where he is studying to become a physician’s assistant. Youngest son Jason graduated from the UA College of Medicine in May, and has started his residency in pediatrics at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
And Janet now works in the treatment of addictions.
“When I was doing my psych rotation at the VA Hospital, I discovered that people who suffer with addictions are amazing people. They embraced me as I worked with them and I felt really comfortable working with them.”
That recalls how comfortable she was being the oldest student in the Class of 2006. One of her favorite memories still makes her laugh.
“One day in class I was writing on the blackboard and another student said, ‘Wow. You have beautiful handwriting. Have you ever thought of being a teacher?”