Nov. 26, 2014
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Melissa Duimstra had a long list of aspirations. She wanted to be a doctor and a veterinarian and an artist and a horse trainer. Through the years she’s done many of those things—and more —and after taking a circuitous route to medical school, she’s now on the path to becoming a doctor as a member of the MSUCOM Class of 2018.
Duimstra’s love for animals led her to working with a veterinarian during high school. It was an experience that helped her realize that a veterinary career might not be for her.
At the same time, her maternal grandfather, a furniture designer and painter, was also fostering her interest in science and art.
“He had a studio in his house and he was always encouraging us to paint and explore. I also credit him with encouraging my curiosity about how things work in the world and science because he was good at that too. He had an inquisitive and curious mind.”
Winning a national art award and a scholarship to art school as a high school senior bolstered her confidence in her creative ability. “It encouraged me to think that I could be an artist,” she says.
Duimstra put her artistic aspirations on hold while completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Western Michigan University and spending some time working in a residential facility. She then plunged head first into the career of an artist, and though not starving, she did take on many jobs to make ends meet. She was a vocalist in a band for 20 years, worked as a certified horseshoer, taught art to students of all ages and even did consulting work for educational systems.
Though she was a healthy person, health care was never far from her mind.
“Even when I was young and naïve, the thought was in the back of my mind – what would I do if something happened to me?” she says.
When her first child was born with the assistance of a midwife, the experience made such a big impact on her that Duimstra became a doula.
“I loved listening to people and finding out what they wanted from their experience, processing that through with them. My philosophy was to support what the mother wanted,” she notes. “It was a wonderful way to empower women.”
As she spent her time working in many jobs—including a stint as a zebra trainer and a simulated patient at the MSU College of Human Medicine—Duimstra and her family did not carry health insurance and accessing health care was challenging. Many times friends would come to her and ask for her assistance in finding ways to get the care they needed.
“Through the years I would encounter people having medical issues,” she says. “I saw them struggle with how do you take care of yourself? How do you balance a career you love with the practical side of getting access to health care?”
About six years ago Duimstra’s life came to a crossroads. The economic downturn hit her family very hard and she knew she’d need to make some very difficult choices regarding her future, her career and her family.
“The older I got, the more important it was to me to do what I felt passionate about,” she says. “I wanted to do something hands-on and I loved being a doula, but I wanted more.”
She explored the possibility of pursuing training to become a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner, but neither option seemed like the perfect fit. She’d been volunteering as a medical assistant at Catherine’s Health Center, a free health clinic in Grand Rapids, and fell in love with the atmosphere and the family element of a family practice clinic.
Duimstra went to Grand Valley State University to complete her upper level science prerequisites. She also began considering medical school options.
“I’d always gone to osteopathic doctors,” she says. “One day my doctor looked at me and said, ‘You’re totally an osteopath at heart.’ I also have D.O. friends who said the same thing. ‘Why aren’t you applying to MSUCOM?’ They were right!”
Duimstra is planning a career as a primary care physician. “I volunteered at Catherine’s for a couple of years, and then worked there for a year. I loved it—the doctors, the patients, everything. I enjoyed how you really got to build relationships with people. That was an important experience—it confirmed that I’m in the right place.”
She’s also ready to share advice with other nontraditional students who may be a few years—and a few careers—removed from their undergraduate degrees.
“You can do it. It’s not easy, but you can do it. Life is a circle—you never know exactly where it will take you, but often what you loved as a child will come back around,“ she says.