Acadia experience doorway to medical degree for wife/mother/mature student

Dr. Michelle Matthews (Fred Sgambati photo)

By Fred Sgambati (’83)

Michelle Matthews (’07) may have taken the long way home, but she’s finally where she wants to be and proud to say that Acadia University played a key role in preparing her for her dream job.

Matthews earned her MD in May from the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Ontario and is currently doing her residency in family medicine in Kentville with Dr. David Nunn. But Acadia, she says, was pivotal to her success. It prepared her academically and mentally, and when she applied to medical school she was fully confident she had the know-how to fulfill a lifelong ambition to be a doctor.

Still, the route was nothing if not circuitous for this 47-year-old mother of three, who lives with her husband Ron Leach and three children – Jason, 26; Sean, 14; and Nichole, 12 - in Port Williams, Nova Scotia. Matthews returned to school at age 40 and started from scratch, undertaking a double major in biology and history at Acadia.

“I found it very challenging,” she says. “I don’t think I ever worked as hard as I did during my undergrad. In my first year especially I was working until 2 a.m. and pulling all-nighters for my exams. But everybody was so supportive. It’s like a family here; nowhere is like Acadia. The professors know you by your first name and all of them were wonderful. It was amazing!”

Matthews was born in Toronto and grew up in Marathon, ON, although she spent many summers in Nova Scotia looking after her grandmother at Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton. Even as a young girl Matthews loved to fix things, and recalls at the tender age of seven swaddling dolls in bandages and caring for their ouchies. Animals received similar treatment, and her mother was certain that Michelle would end up as a veterinarian.

Her mother, aunt and grand-aunt had been nurses, but after finishing two years of pre-med at Mount Saint Vincent University in her early twenties, Matthews’s career path shifted. She went back to Toronto and pursued a double Honours BA in Communications and Anthropology, completed a Masters in Communications in New York City and then returned to Toronto to work at IBM.

‘Always felt restless’

But she couldn’t settle and the family eventually moved to Nova Scotia. “Despite jobs in communications,” she says, “I always felt restless. It was kind of a stop-gap for me.” With her husband’s support and encouragement, Matthews decided to return to school and enrolled at Acadia.

They ended up in Port Williams, where Leach is self-employed in the IT industry. This allowed Matthews to concentrate completely on her studies and “made it much easier for me to do my undergrad. I was a study machine – it was all I did – and since he works from home, he was there for the kids.”

The same was true for three years of medical school. While she attended McMaster’s Niagara campus in St. Catharines, the family remained in the Valley, although there were many trips home and Matthews did all of her electives in Nova Scotia.

“There’s a great sense of fulfillment to know that I was able to do it,” she says. She works five minutes from home now and is somewhat surprised to discover that people have responded to her story and look to her for mentorship. The fact she rolled the dice as a mature student, is the first member of her family and also the first Mi’kmaq woman from Eskasoni First Nation to earn a medical degree are possible contributing factors to this unexpected public profile. 

“There was always that unfulfilled, nagging feeling of doing something more meaningful. I’m happy to be home, happy to be working with people I care about, and it’s a privilege to work with people you know. It makes me pretty proud.

“Acadia enabled me to move forward,” she says. A strong advocate of lifelong learning, Matthews adds, “it’s never too late to go back.” At journey’s end, in fact, “I feel I’ve done what I set out to do and I’m ready to enjoy it.” Welcome home.

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