Karen Morris-Priester

Against All Odds

York College played an important role in Dr. Morris-Priester’s journey from the “projects” to the operating room.

In 2007, Karen Morris-Priester ’02 (Allentown, PA) gained national recognition as the first grandmother to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine. She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She had none of the advantages enjoyed by many of her Yale classmates, and had to keep reminding herself that she had earned her place through hard work and persistence in the face of adversity. Yale was another milestone on a demanding journey to realize her lifelong dream to become a doctor.

Morris-Priester, now 49, earned a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in nursing from York College before going on to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine. She is currently an anesthe-siologist at Coordinated Health in Allentown, PA, and said, “Every day I go home with the best feeling in the world, knowing that I made a difference in someone’s life.”

As a young girl, after watching the level of care given to her grandmother in the hospital, Morris-Priester decided that she wanted to be a doctor. She had no way of knowing that the path she would have to follow to achieve her ambition would have so many twists and turns.

One of the toughest obstacles Morris-Priester had to overcome in her quest to be a physician was not only the misperceptions of others, but also her own. She thought people from the projects, single moms – like herself – bringing up five children, don’t go to medical school. Throughout her journey, she discovered she was wrong and often recalled her mother telling her that where you live does not define who you are.

Inner Strength

A lot of her strength, she said, comes from her mother, Betty Williams, who died just before Morris-Priester graduated from Yale. “Through her, I discovered that there’s not much I cannot overcome if I put my mind to it.” Her mother escaped from a husband who abused her, and took her five children to Harrisburg, PA, where she struggled to make ends meet. Morris-Priester went to an inner-city school and planned to be the first in her family to attend college. A pregnancy at 16 halted those plans, and she was devastated because she had disappointed her family, especially her mother. “Thirty-two years ago you didn’t just pick up and go to college with a kid. Thirty-two years ago, you went to work.” She married, had four more children, and continued working.

Morris-Priester strongly encouraged her children to study hard so they could attend college. When her eldest daughter, Nikki, asked her where she went to college, “I told her I didn’t go to college, but from then on it started really bugging me.” She looked into going to community college, but her husband never liked the idea, so she took matters into her own hands and enrolled in an evening class.

Her decision was the last straw for a rocky marriage, and she and her husband separated and later divorced. She was on her own, raising five children, but determined to show she could handle college. “I think I was there early for every class” she said. “I was sitting in the front row, I had my books, I was so excited to be there.” With careful planning and support from her children and mother, she kept working full-time, fought to pay bills, received good grades, and entered the nursing program at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Things seemed to be going well, but her courage and resolve were tested again when Morris-Priester and her children suffered a terrifying home invasion. Two men with guns and ski masks showed up in the middle of the night looking for a nephew who had stayed with them. Morris-Priester and her children fled the home in fear. This happened just before her exams, which she thought she might fail. “I worked so hard, and I let these people take this from me; let two strangers walk into my house, and take my dream away.” It was one of those times, she said, when she could not let anyone take her life from her. Her children told her they were a team and they’d go back home together. Despite this turmoil, Morris-Priester still passed her exams and in 1996 graduated summa cum laude with an associate’s degree in nursing.

Steps Toward Medical School

Karen Morris-Priester She looked to see where she could obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing while continuing to work full-time. She said York College had a program then where a student could go for a bachelor’s degree, and take some classes at Harrisburg Hospital through a video link. This suited her well and allowed her to be closer to her children, although there were times when she had to travel to YCP because some classes were not offered this way. Sometimes, she would work until 2 or 3 p.m. and drive to York for classes. There was a 45-minute break between some classes, so she would rest in her parked car. “I literally ran out to my car to take a nap, and had my daughter call me on the cell phone to wake me up. I’d run back in and take another class, leave here about 9 p.m. or so, get home, check all my kids’ homework, get their clothes ready for the next day. Then, when I had all their stuff situated, I could sit down and do my homework. I’d end up going to bed at 1 or 2 a.m. in the morning, turn around and get up at 4 a.m. and do it all over again. So I was going on three or four hours of sleep during the week.”

It was while she was at YCP, that Morris-Priester wondered again about becoming a doctor. As a nurse working at the Camp Hill State Correctional Institution, she would look at the doctors and think, “I wonder if I could do it?”

She was doing well in classes and the more the physicians relied on her thoughts about patients, the more confident she became, daring to hope that her dream could become reality.

One of the counselors at YCP told her she should take classes such as organic chemistry and physics as prerequisites for medical school. She also found out that she had to take the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). When Morris-Priester started applying to medical schools, (she applied to only four since she didn’t have the money to travel), they asked for a committee letter from YCP. She learned that her organic chemistry professor, Aline (Lindy) Harrison, Ph.D., was Chair of the pre-med committee. She asked for help and gave Harrison some background information about herself. At the next class, the professor pulled her aside and said she never knew Morris-Priester had five kids and was working full-time since she was always well prepared for class. Morris-Priester said, “It made me feel good.” Harrison said “Karen was an absolute delight to have in class. She was unassuming and gentle, always thoughtful of others. She is very skilled in working with people. She is an amazing woman!” They have stayed in touch. When Morris-Priester was accepted to Yale, she gave her mentor a Yale coffee mug.

Morris-Priester wanted to be a doctor, but was embarrassed because she felt people might think it was a silly idea for someone like her to think of going to med school. She kept her hopes to herself until she switched shifts with another nurse so that she could take the MCAT and told her she was interested in going to med school. When she returned to work, a lot of the nurses were very supportive but, surprisingly, some physicians had negative comments, saying she was too old for med school, which made her doubt herself again.

In 2001, she discovered the six-week Minority Medical Education Program, a summer enrichment course, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Held at various campus sites, including Yale, the program awards certificates, and helps minorities who are interested in becoming medical students. Morris-Priester attended the program on the Yale campus and excelled. This proved to be a turning point in her odyssey, and helped dispel nagging doubts about her ability to become a doctor.

While she was in the program, the results of her MCAT came back, and her scores were good. The Yale School of Medicine Dean of Student Affairs took her to meet the Dean of Admissions, who asked if she was considering applying to Yale. “I don’t think I would have considered applying to Yale. I had in mind that people who go to Harrisburg Area Community College, people from the projects, don’t go to med school at Yale.” The dean told her all her grades were very competitive, and she should think about applying. “And I did, and I got in.”

Bringing Something Different to the Table

Later, she found out that a lot of med schools such as Yale don’t want cookie-cutter students, but like having people in class who have life experience. “I had that mix; I had all those years of nursing, and I did raise a family, so I brought something different to the table.”

She wants people to know that you don’t have to start at an Ivy League school; it is just about starting. “The fact that I went to HACC, and I went to York, and I went to Yale and was able to compete with people at Yale, the majority of whom came from Princeton, Harvard and Yale, and some of the bigger colleges, shows that I still got a quality education at both of those institutions. It’s not about the name of the institution; it’s about what you put into it.”

The invitation to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, about two weeks before she graduated from Yale, was a complete surprise. She had also just remarried, and her husband, William Priester was in the audience. Winfrey continued to astonish Morris-Priester by flying her children and grandchildren to appear on the show.

“I was totally enjoying the moment, and then when she added they were going to pay off my loans – about $160,000 – I thought I was going to fall over,” she said. “Oprah had Ambi Skincare and Johnson & Johnson pay off my debt, and they started a scholarship for women of color interested in the sciences, so, to me, in some ways, that was the bigger favor, and now there are other women who will benefit.”

After appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and being in the public eye, Morris-Priester heard criticism as well as praise. One woman wrote to her after the show, and presumed Morris-Priester must have been on welfare, which was not the case. Just before she graduated, an older doctor criticized her for becoming pregnant in high school, and questioned whether she deserved to go to the Yale School of Medicine. She believes in second and third chances as well as compassion for those who make mistakes. When she was going to Yale, she had no idea she’d end up on Winfrey’s show, but is glad that her story can help others, and that she has a chance to act as a role model. She said the positives outweigh the negatives. With her loans paid off, Morris-Priester is able to use her visibility and give motivational talks. She has heard from people all around the world who have been inspired by her story to keep pursuing their dreams.

Life After Yale

Karen Morris-Priester Following graduation from Yale, Morris-Priester had an internship at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, PA, followed by a Harvard-affiliated anesthesiology residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. The residency was one of her toughest challenges because of the long shifts when she often worked 30 hours straight in an atmosphere where everyone had to constantly prove they belonged.

At Coordinated Health in Allentown, Morris-Priester provides general anesthesia at the surgery center where most people are day-surgery patients. She talks to them about their anesthesia and gets them prepared for surgery. “I’m there when the patient goes to sleep and when they wake up.” She’s in and out of several rooms, meeting more patients and their families, getting consent. “I’m multitasking the whole day. Being a mom with five kids really helps.”

There have been plenty of times, especially during her residency, when Morris-Priester asked herself, “Is this worth it?” But in the end, she said, “I can take that Yale diploma and that Harvard diploma, and put them both on my wall, and say to my grandkids, ‘If I can do this, imagine what you can accomplish.’ ”

Looking back at her YCP experience and accomplishments, she said, “As much as I stressed out when I was in Professor Harrison’s class, when I sat there in those lecture halls at Yale, I could compete with everyone else because she made sure that everyone leaving her class had what they needed. An A in her class – or a B, there were no slides – was an A that could carry you anywhere.” She truly believes that you can go anywhere and compete with anyone with an education from YCP.