One of the Most Important People in My Life:
How I Came to Be a Physician
By Walter J. Steele, MD
Walter J. Steele – Tim W. Bowen Loyalty Fund Scholarship
First, I would like to express my appreciation to David Anderson and Marie Baker for inviting me to share with you my inspiration for establishing the Steele-Bowen Scholarship and to leave you with some of my thoughts about what I hope the scholarship will accomplish.
Now, I have to admit, when I was first asked to speak, I was a bit hesitant...mainly because my inspiration is best expressed by a story...a very personal story about altruism, friendship, mentoring and dedication. It is the story of how I came to be a physician.
The story begins in the early 1950s when a young man named Tim Bowen was accepted to medical school at UNC, fulfilling a dream he’d had since a teenager. For various reasons, he found himself accepted a bit later in life than most of his classmates, and he already had a wife and a very young daughter to care for. He began his first year with excited confidence and was deeply grateful to his home state and the university for giving him a chance to pursue his dream. However, financial considerations found him desperately trying to maintain his studies, while holding a full time job to support his young family and to pay his educational expenses. Unlike today, financial assistance in those times was more difficult to come by and ultimately Tim’s dream succumbed to the realities of his life situation and he found it necessary to withdraw from medical school in his second year. While he never came back, he remained close to the medical community and ultimately had a very successful career in pharmaceutical sales.
Twenty years later, in February of 1974, I was a sophomore at UNC Charlotte, studying chemistry, living at home as a commuter student and working at a clothing store to help defray my own expenses. My parents worked very hard all their lives but were of limited means, and sending me off to college was not an option. My grades were very good, and I figured that I’d probably get a decent job upon graduation, but I had no real plan...no real long-term goals. I certainly never thought about aiming as high as medical school. I just wasn’t equipped to entertain those thoughts. There were no doctors even in my extended family and only a few college grads.
One cold, sunny morning that February, I had breakfast with my dad. We had the usual mundane conversation, and then I headed off to class. He went out to make a few calls in his then-new profession as an insurance representative. It was the day before his 51st birthday. About two in the afternoon, I was in a chemistry lab when a NC Highway Patrolman appeared at my bench and said he needed to escort me home because my dad was gravely ill. On the way to my house, following that police car, it suddenly occurred to me that since we were going home and not to the hospital, my father had probably died. In fact, earlier in the day he had pulled his car to the side of the road, stepped out and collapsed, dying of a heart attack on the ground.
I was devastated. I was very close to my dad and loved him dearly. I felt lost. In a sense, I’d assumed he’d always be there to guide me, give me advice and help me through my life. Now he was gone...taken away very, very suddenly. My mother was a grief-stricken widow, just as lost as I, and my 16 year old brother was now looking to me to be his source of strength. Suffice it to say, I was scared and terribly, terribly alone.
Later that spring, I began seeing a young woman I’d known as a classmate and friend in high school, and we became close. She was also a local commuter student and lived at home with her parents. I got to know her family...mom, dad and brothers. Sometime late in the fall, she told me her dad wanted to “have a talk” with me.
Now I don’t know about you, but when a girlfriend’s father wants to “have a talk” with you...that gets your attention. So the next Sunday afternoon, I dressed nicely in a coat and tie—rare for me at the time—and drove over to their home. Her dad, Tim Bowen, welcomed me into his study and told me to have a seat.
Over the next hour or so, he asked me a lot of questions.
The subject of my seeing his daughter never came up.
How’s school going? “Good.”
What are you studying? “Chemistry.”
How are your grades? “Good.”
What are your plans when you graduate? “Uhhhhh.....”
That’s when he popped the question...
Have you ever considered medicine? “No, I really never considered it a real possibility.”
Why? he asked. At that question, I was stumped. I had no answer.
At this point, I knew nothing of his history at Chapel Hill, only that he called on doctors as part of his business and that he seemed to admire them and what they did. Many of his clients were also good friends, some of whom I’d met. He then waxed eloquent for the next thirty minutes or so about the noble profession of physician and how fulfilling a life of servitude in that role would be. Sitting there across from him, I was intrigued, inspired even. He made me think of it for the first time in my life; he had planted a seed. Why can’t I do this? What’s stopping me?
He then went on to tell me he would vigorously help me pursue that goal, if I was interested and if I was willing to work hard. He wanted me to think on it for a week and come back to talk to him the following weekend...which I did. By that time, I was pretty excited about the prospect, and he was equally enthusiastic. In the coming months, he arranged multiple shadowing experiences with local physicians in many specialties around Charlotte to give me a feel for the profession. He advised me to quit my clothing store job and get a job in the hospital, which I did—first as a phlebotomist at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte and later as a full time surgical tech at the old Charlotte Memorial Hospital, now Carolinas Medical Center (where, coincidentally, I still practice). I did this while still carrying a full academic load at UNCC.
Well, Tim watched my grades like a hawk, chastised me when needed and kept me headed true north. He helped me make sure that my courses were selected with an eye towards best demonstrating to the med school that I was capable and deserving. He suggested I call Dr. Bakewell, the dean of admissions here at the time, and set up a pre-application informal meeting and then drove me to Chapel Hill for the appointment. We chatted the whole trip up here about the conversation I should have with the dean...things like the course work I should be pursuing, the extracurricular things the school would be looking for, and just generally presenting myself as an enthusiastic applicant. And then we debriefed all the way back to Charlotte, evaluating our plan of action.
For more than a year, rarely would more than a few days pass without us comparing notes and chatting about my classes or my job. He was even there for me when fits of grief over the recent death of my father would surface...never more than a phone call away.
I can remember proudly showing him my grade reports from UNCC and seeing him beam, much as my own dad had done in the recent past. I remember him bragging to his wife about my MCAT scores. But I also remember him keeping me grounded, focused and confident in what I was doing. With him, I believed...I knew...I could do it.
Day by day, month by month, my anxiety built...until that letter of early acceptance came. He had created the concept, planted the seed, nurtured, guided and encouraged. I came to realize he had become my mentor, my surrogate father and, in short, one of the most important people in my life. Ultimately, his daughter and I didn’t last, but his bond with me did and always will.
It was actually near the end of the process before he leveled with me about his motives...and this forms the crux of my decision to fund the scholarship. He ultimately told me for the first time, literally just before I turned in my application, of his med school experience. With a heavy heart, he said that he had always carried a nagging guilt that he’d taken up a place in the class that could’ve gone to someone who would have become a wonderful physician, that he had deprived NC of a doctor that may have made a difference in some community.
Out of that consideration, he’d promised himself long ago that he would someday actively seek someone to put back into the profession in his place, specifically someone who might not otherwise be thinking of medicine but should be. I am so lucky that he found me.
This brings me to my motives for funding the scholarship and what I hope to be its legacy. I felt a strong desire to honor Tim for his momentous contribution to my life and to recognize our strong bond of friendship which is so deeply rooted in the history of our separate lives. I came to realize that there was probably no better way to do that than by bringing our names together and associating them with a means by which many students in the future will be able to more easily afford their pursuit of this profession—perhaps even helping someone succeed who otherwise might not have.