Making “What If” Possible: Renee Ridley, PhD, MSN

Motivated by her 30 years of experiences as a nurse, a former nurse educator realizes her dream of becoming a physician
February 21, 2018

You don’t find many medical students who have 30-year established careers in health care already—but Renee Ridley, PhD, MSN, does.

As a nurse, Ridley enjoyed a long career in obstetrics and gynecology. She’s been a part of thousands of births and momentous occasions for mothers. She’s also been behind the scenes and by bedsides making sure that these experiences go as well as they possibly can.

So what makes a woman in her 50’s decide to tackle medical school? For Ridley, it’s the chance to do more for her patients and a chance to prove that women can do anything they set their minds to.

Ridley grew up in a small town in Western Kentucky and received a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1985. She remembers always being passionate about science and “how things worked” in the biological world. That, combined with a passion for people, made healthcare the perfect fit.

“I can still remember it,” Ridley said. “My father knew of my interest and dissuaded me from attending medical school. Instead, he encouraged me to become a nurse. Since I’d never seen a woman go to medical school, and had never even seen a female physician, I didn’t argue with the logic.”

So that’s what Ridley did. She became a nurse.

After marrying her high school sweetheart, she graduated from nursing school and worked in labor and delivery, newborn nursery, postpartum and gynecological post-surgical units.

“I love this type of work and I really feel that it’s my calling to help women during this time in their lives,” Ridley said.

Ridley and her husband were also blessed with two children, Ryan and Robyn, who Ridley credits with being her inspiration to go back to school, to create a better life for them.

As she continued through her career as a nurse, she knew she wanted to accomplish more professionally and increase her ability to care for patients. So, she began looking at higher education opportunities as a nurse, eventually attending family nurse practitioner school and graduating in 1996.

When asked why she chose to become a nurse practitioner instead of a physician at that time, “All I saw were barriers,” Ridley said. “Not just the gender inequalities of trying to go to medical school, but the weight of tackling those barriers in addition to the need for me to provide all the necessary things a working mom must provide for her family—stability and income. It just wasn’t feasible and didn’t seem possible.”

Despite working as a nurse practitioner and eventually transitioning into academia, Ridley still wanted more. She craved more knowledge and the ability to accomplish more medically for the women she served. So, she got a PhD from Saint Louis University in 2008 and continued educating future nurses.

This is where her journey with Texas A&M started.

“After getting my PhD, I was hired as an associate professor at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi College of Nursing and Health Sciences,” Ridley said. “This was my first time to live outside Kentucky and we uprooted our entire family to make this dream happen. Both kids were in college courses at the time.”

It was her son, Ryan, who helped Ridley take another leap of faith.

“He said I should take classes with him and his sister in biomedical sciences, just in case I decided to apply to medical school, later,” Ridley said. “It seemed sort of crazy, but I did it.”

One thing led to another, and with her family’s encouragement, Ridley took the MCAT. She also moved to College Station, Texas, to become a professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, headquartered in the same building as the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Perhaps it was the proximity, or the support she received from her nursing faculty peers, but she finally applied to medical school.

She was accepted into the Texas A&M College of Medicine Class of 2019. Now in her third-year of medical school at the age of 54, Ridley is more confident in her path than ever before.

“I’ve known for a long time that this is what I want to do, but now that I’m getting further along through medical school, I know this is exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Ridley said. “It’s an incredible feeling.”

While she isn’t your typical medical student, she sees incredible value in being around people who aren’t just like her.

“I’ve learned a great deal learning alongside these younger generations,” Ridley said. “It helps them, too, because I’ve actually been able to be a patient-advocate in our classes and help my fellow students see the world differently. And they’ve been incredibly receptive to it—I really love my class.”

So what’s next? For Ridley it’s fulfilling that dream of becoming an OB-GYN physician. With less than two years left of medical school, she’s gearing up to apply to residencies and begin practicing, the dream she’s had since she fell in love with medicine back in rural Kentucky.

— Katherine Hancock

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