Guns to Stethoscopes

Kathy Thompson

MY PARENTS WERE products of the Great Depression. Dad was the frugal one. He was also a pack rat. He’d save pieces of wood for that shelf that he would build “someday.” For years, those pieces sat under the ping-pong table in the basement.

One night, Mom dragged the wood out to the street for the garbage collector to haul away. Later that night, Dad dragged the pieces back into the basement. Mom was the type to get rid of things that were no longer needed. I wish I’d taken after Mom. I’m glad, though, that I took after Dad when it came to saving and frugality.

When I was growing up on Long Island, New York, my parents never talked about our family’s financial situation. It seemed like we were lower-middle class. Dad would follow us three kids around the house, turning off lights and tightening bathroom taps. Later, after my parents died, my sister, my brother and I found out that they had more money than we thought. This was true even though both Mom and Dad died during the Great Recession, when the value of their investments was down significantly.

Dad never knew his father, who disappeared during the Depression. We don’t know whether he deserted the family, died or was killed. He likely deserted, leaving his wife and their three young boys to fend for themselves. Dad had a grandfather that filled in, but it made Dad determined to be a good provider for his kids, especially his son.

When I asked Dad if I could go to Columbia or Fordham University, both private institutions, he told me, “No, your brother’s education comes first because he’s a man and someday he will have to support a family.” I guess I can’t complain since he paid for my undergraduate education at the State University of New York at Albany. Still, the message was clear: My education wasn’t as important because I was female.

My mother wanted me to be a secretary, get married, have children and live close by. Instead, after I graduated, I moved 3,000 miles across the country to California and joined the police department.

My father taught me two important financial lessons. First, save, save, save. Second, get a government job because you’ll get a defined benefit pension. Other than that, I didn’t know much. Indeed, at a local bank, I bought class B mutual fund shares, which impose a back-end sales charge when sold. I also funded IRAs starting in 1985, but for years I made the mistake of investing my IRA in bank certificates of deposit. I would have done much better in the S&P 500.

Over time, I learned about financial planning. I followed Jonathan Clements’s column in The Wall Street Journal. I eagerly learned from Warren Buffett. Eventually, I came to appreciate the virtues of index funds and Roth IRAs. Starting in 2002, I converted a significant portion of my traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. For that, I’m eternally grateful to my younger self.

But there’s one thing I wish my younger self had understood better.

Women had only been accepted into the police department in 1975. I joined in 1980, and the police still weren’t very accepting of women. If I’d washed out of the department quickly, my plan B was to become a paramedic. That would have got me to my current job—to which I’m much better suited—far faster. But at the time, giving up on police work would have felt like a devastating failure. The lesson: Sometimes, failure can be the best thing to happen to you.

 After I didn’t make detective, I became bored and wanted another job. I applied to the Peace Corps but was told I had no skills that the Corps could use. I asked what they were looking for and they said medical skills.

As a police officer, I often went to hospitals to interview victims and suspects. I felt comfortable there and was intrigued by all that was going on. It had been a while since I graduated college. At the time, math and science courses weren’t required to graduate. I decided to take beginning math and science courses at the local community college while continuing to work fulltime. It wasn’t easy.

Still, I found that I really liked the course work and it liked me—I was good at it. I transferred to a local four-year college to finish my pre-med courses and, after that, I applied to medical school. By then, I had quit the police department.

At age 41, getting into medical school was difficult. Most schools wouldn’t accept applicants over 30. But there were two University of California schools that had a reputation for being open to “mature” students. One of them accepted me.

I became a medical intern—the first year of my residency—at the University of California, San Diego, at age 45. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Then, at 50, I decided to enter an infectious disease fellowship program back in New York. In hindsight, the benefits I received didn’t justify the hefty costs involved—the lost wages, the hours on call, the humiliation dished out by the “attending” physicians during hospital rounds.

Up until 2010, when I finished my medical training, the most I earned in a year was $60,000. But once I became an attending (or unsupervised) physician myself, my income rose. Even though I’d used most of my savings to pay for medical school, I’d still accumulated $30,000 in student loans—which I was now able to pay off.

Except for the fortuitous Roth conversions, I really didn’t start amassing money for retirement until my late 40s. Since becoming an attending physician, I’ve contributed the maximum to various retirement accounts, as I try to catch up. That’s why it’s so annoying when I hear, “You’re a doctor, you can afford it.”

At age 56, I finally bought my first home. I still have a big mortgage, which I want to pay off before I retire. I’m guessing I’ll be working into my 70s. This year, I also finally treated myself to a new car. Before that, I’d owned just two cars in my life, each one for 20 years.

I never married. It’s hard for a woman to find a man who’s willing to follow her while she pursues her dream career. Typically, it’s the woman who makes the sacrifices. During one 12-year period, I moved eight times. One of my guiding motivations has been the fear that I’d end up as a bag lady living on the street. I’ve always felt that I had to depend on myself.

Still, it’s been difficult as a single woman. Auto mechanics, contractors and salesmen sometimes try to take advantage of you. Employers don’t always pay you fairly or give you the same opportunities as male colleagues.

But with all that, I get a deep sense of satisfaction from my job—because it allows me to provide medical care to those who need it. Today, my practice focuses on general medicine patients, as well as those infected with HIV and COVID-19. Some patients have never been to a doctor before. In a way, these patients are my children. Changing careers to become a doctor was not financially savvy. But it sure has been a salve for my soul.

Kathy Thompson lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. A transplanted New Yorker, she’s now a Californian at heart. Kathy comments on HumbleDollar as kt2062.

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