How one Latter-day Saint mother worked her way through medical school with 9 kids
Following graduation, Sarah Merrill is starting 7-year neurosurgery residency at Indiana University
When the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine asked Sarah Merrill if she was willing to share her story with the media, the graduating wife and mother of nine wasn’t initially interested.
Then she changed her mind.
“I thought about how I would have loved to hear about a story like this when I was starting,” she said. “We find stories about women having their first baby during medical school but I couldn’t find much about women who started school already having had their family. So I was hoping it would help somebody out there.”
Despite some personal apprehension early on, Merrill started medical school in 2018 when her youngest child was 4 years old.
The 41-year-old graduated from medical school in May and celebrated the milestone with her husband and nine children, ages 8 to 20.
“Most of my doubts and fears were before medical school started,” Merrill told the Deseret News. “We had just moved to Arizona and I hadn’t started school yet. I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I didn’t know if it was possible to do with nine kids. I couldn’t find anybody who had done it before. Once I got into school, had my first exams under my belt and did fine and we got into a rhythm with my family, I wasn’t really worried that I would make it.”
Putting medical school dreams on hold
Merrill, who was born in Provo, Utah, aspired to be a doctor from a young age.
“That was my plan,” she said.
She married Jason Merrill in the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple in 2000 and the couple pursued their education at Dartmouth College.
Merrill signed up to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before learning she was pregnant. She thought she still might go to medical school and took the MCAT, but later decided to stay home and raise her daughter.
“That was the right thing for me to do at that time,” she said.
The couple didn’t necessarily plan to have a large family, but Merrill went on to deliver four daughters and five sons over the next 12 years.
She relished raising her children but never gave up on her desire to continue her education. Maybe medical school wasn’t realistic, but she wanted to find something worthwhile.
“I always thought I would (return) when the kids were grown and do something. ... I loved being a mom to our kids, but I definitely had a lot of ambition and career goals,” she said. “It was hard to put them on hold but I did it because I believed in what we were doing. But it wasn’t like the desire went away and then suddenly came back. It was definitely always there.”
Medical school in Arizona
Merrill started preparing to apply to medical school in 2016. She retook the MCAT and was eventually accepted at the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, requiring the family to move from Pennsylvania to Arizona.
How did the family function while mom went to medical school? It was a team effort.
Mornings typically involved getting everyone up and ready for school. The oldest teenager shuttled the older kids to high school while the parents took the younger children to buses or school. Then Jason turned his attention to work and Sarah went to her school.
There were many mother-daughter “homework parties” where each person did their homework while enjoying snacks.
During her third year with clinical rotations, Sarah’s mother lived with the family and helped with the children so Sarah could be at the hospital by 5 a.m.
It may not have looked “perfect,” but it worked for them.
“We had to be a little flexible depending on where I was in school and what was required at that time,” she said. “I have always loved school and learning ... but there were definitely times when you realize you can’t be a perfect student and a perfect mom, and you just have to do what needs to be done, set your priorities for each part of your life. I never felt like I needed to get 100% on every single test. I felt like if I was learning enough, doing well enough in school, and my kids were healthy, happy and loved, that was (enough). We weren’t going to be too perfectionistic about any one part of it.”
Judgments, faith and respect
There were mixed reactions to what Merrill was doing. Some people remarked, “Amazing, good for you,” while others said things like it was “Wrong for her to make her family sacrifice for her” and “Why did you have so many kids if you were just going to leave them and go back to school or work?”
Most were overwhelmed at the thought of medical school with a large family, saying “That just makes me tired to think about it.”
“People tend to react according to their own worldview and life perspective,” she said. “I got a variety of opinions and judgments.”
Merrill said she and her family relied on their Latter-day Saint faith during the most difficult times.
One such time came at Dartmouth when Sarah wanted to continue her schooling but instead choose to follow a spiritual prompting she received to start a family.
There were also times over the years when academic opportunities came along. Sarah would pray about those opportunities but didn’t feel it wasn’t the right situation, so she waited.
She said those experiences prepared her for the decision to pursue medical school, which was based on many prayers and discussions with her husband. As a result, they felt heavenly support.
“I think that helped me to have more confidence. I felt that we would be supported and we were.” Sarah said. “I would still get down or discouraged sometimes and I asked my husband for frequent priesthood blessings. ... I think all of that helped me through, especially during times when I felt discouraged.”
By the time she reached her clinical rotations, Merrill said she found that being a mother provided her with valuable life experience that enhanced her care for patients.
“I was very impressed from the very beginning that she would endeavor to undergo the rigors of medical school education as a mother, let alone a mother of nine,” Halyard said in the article. “Having a mother of nine going into medical school and making it work really speaks, I think, to tremendous support from her family, including her husband and her kids, and tremendous organizational skills.”
The family celebrated Sarah’s graduation with a “children-focused” party at their home, complete with favorite foods and a bouncy house.
“I wanted to celebrate the kids’ contribution to the whole process because they had to have some extra work and subpar dinners. They contributed a lot,” she said. “We had a big thing in our backyard.”
Neurosurgery residency at Indiana University
Following her graduation in Arizona, the Merrill family packed up and moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where Sarah will soon start a neurosurgery residency at Indiana University.
Neurosurgery residency is a seven-year process that will require more hours at the hospital with less flexibility than she had in medical school, but the Merrill family is ready for the challenge.
“It will be hard when I have to miss some important events, but again, I think the family understands,” she said. “We’re really open with them about what’s included in this journey.”
Before getting started, Sarah and Jason have planned a getaway to Florida for some rest and relaxation.
Lessons learned along the way
Merrill shared a handful of lessons she has learned from her experience.
First, from a faith perspective, she learned to trust in heaven’s guidance even though it wasn’t what she wanted. She especially hopes her children take note of this.
“I feel incredibly blessed to have all of my kids and have this career that I love as well. If I had gone with my own plan back in college, I don’t think I would have the family we have today,” she said. “I hope that my sons and daughters will pray about all of their life decisions and seek guidance through faith and prayer. It’s good to have a plan for your life but know that God’s plan is always better than whatever we come up with.”
Merrill learned not to judge somebody else’s path in life.
“We can’t judge what is right in somebody else’s life path,” she said. “It’s best to just be supportive.”
Merrill appreciates her husband for his support of her going back to school but hopes more people, including her children, will acknowledge the sacrifices all spouses make in such situations.
“Nobody ever said I was amazing for letting Jason go to business school, but there was shock and awe that he would agree to me going back to school,” she said.
Finally, Merrill hopes others recognize and appreciate the noble efforts of all who are doing their best, from the stay-at-home moms to all those in the workplace.
“We’re all getting up in the morning and working hard all day to try to do what we’re supposed to be doing,” she said. “I don’t want women to feel like they should be doing more or something different because of what I’m doing, but rather to seek after what they are passionate about and follow what they feel is the Lord’s plan for their life.”