Becoming a doctor was a goal for Brittany Lewis since she was a child. But when she had her own child at 19 and divorced her husband while still in college, her goal seemed out of reach.
Lewis toughed it out and on Saturday earned the right to be called “Dr. Lewis.” Her son, Santana Lewis Jones, 8, crossed the stage with her as she received her medical degree at the UC Davis School of Medicine’s graduation.
“He’s been there through it all with me, and I want to give him something to look forward to at his own graduation someday,” Lewis, 28, said before the ceremony. She was among 120 students who graduated Saturday at the Mondavi Center in Davis.
Santana grew shy before the big crowd, staying close to mom. Later he said, “I’m proud of her, and I love her.” He remembered the many days that he awoke early with his mother, eating cereal as she studied at the kitchen table in their midtown Sacramento apartment.
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Brittany’s mother, Rebecca Lewis, also crossed the stage with her, as family are allowed to do at the medical school’s commencement. It was Rebecca Lewis’ reward for so many hours watching Santana while his mother went to class and attended medical conferences.
“We filled in whenever and wherever possible,” Rebecca Lewis said. “We didn’t wait for her to ask us for help.”
Quintin Lewis, Brittany’s father, stood in the audience, taking photos, and touted his daughter’s accomplishments. He said Brittany had been talking about becoming a doctor since she was 5 years old.
“She just knew it in her heart,” he said. “To see it all come to fruition is amazing.”
Lewis grew up in Elk Grove and attended Laguna Creek High School. She enrolled as a pre-med student at Texas Southern University in Houston but eventually decided to return to California to finish her undergraduate studies.
Then she found out she was pregnant.
At 19, Lewis married her high school sweetheart, and Santana was born July 28, 2006. She eventually enrolled at California State University, Sacramento. The couple divorced shortly before she received her bachelor’s degree in biology in December 2009.
She entered medical school the following year. There were hurdles along the way. She had to take her medical board exams twice, after failing the first time, and she took six months off when she was overwhelmed by being a medical student and mother.
Then there was the added stress of wondering whether the time she devoted to her studies was taking away from the time she gave to her son, she said. Santana spent most weekends with his father and lots of time with his grandparents while his mother was at school.
“I think that the majority of med students have periodic moments of self-doubt about their ability to become a physician,” she said. “I also had doubts as a parent: ‘Am I giving my son everything he needs? Will he grow up and resent me for not being around all the time?’ Or will he understand that I did it to show him that perseverance is all-important and with it you can do anything.”
Her next stops are a year focusing on internal medicine at Highland Hospital in Oakland, followed by a four-year residency at Wayne State University in Detroit, which has a partnership with the Detroit Medical Center.
Lewis said she chose radiology as her specialty, even though it requires a long training period, partly because it will give her more predictable hours as a parent than specialties such as surgery.
“It had a lot to do with anatomy being my favorite subject, and radiology is all anatomy,” she said. “It also gives me the opportunity to pursue my career as a doctor and also be a mom and be present with my family.”
One of her mentors at UC Davis, Shadi Shakeri, teaches radiology. She said Lewis still has a long road ahead of her to become a specialist, but has the determination to make it.
“She showed me she wants to pursue her passion no matter what it takes.”