Johnna Renee Ridley seemed born to be a doctor.
When she was a child, her mother said, she would line up her dolls like patients in a waiting room and treat them for their pretend ailments. But while Ridley’s parents supported their three daughters in their educational and professional endeavors, the road to becoming a doctor wasn’t paved smoothly for a girl growing up in Kentucky in the 1970s.
“Kentucky was a very traditional area, and I’m not sure they were ready for that,” Ridley said. “... It wasn’t normal for them to reach out [to] a woman wanting to be a doctor.”
So Ridley became a nurse, a career she worked in for 30 years (10 as a nurse practitioner), earned a master’s degree and a doctorate and worked as a nursing professor at both the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi campus and the College Station flagship.
But on Saturday, tears filled Ridley’s eyes as she took to the stage at Rudder Auditorium — for her graduation from Texas A&M’s College of Medicine.
Ridley loves the medical field and enjoyed her years as a nurse. She attended Murray State University, met and married her husband and gave birth to two children, creating a family of her own. But becoming a physician was an aspiration always gnawing at the back of her mind.
“The doctors I worked with could see that I wanted it,” she said. “... but I needed to be a mother and provider to my family. I couldn’t just go to med school and rack up $200,000 in debt.”
As her children approached the end of their high school careers, she made the decision to teach for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as a professor of nursing, which would earn free tuition to the university for both kids. In 2013, she made the move to teach at A&M in College Station. Her courses involved nursing topics related to maternal and newborn care, as Ridley’s passion lies in obstetrics and gynecology. Her son and daughter, now adults, encouraged her to take classes and start the medical school journey she’d always talked about. In 2015, she resigned from her faculty position and was accepted into the Texas A&M College of Medicine as a student.
Ridley, who was among about 150 graduates Saturday afternoon, will soon be moving with her husband for a year-long residency at Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, Florida, where she will practice internal medicine.
She was asked by her classmates to give a short speech to the audience that filled Rudder Auditorium, during which she couldn’t help but weep with joy. She spoke of the trials and tribulations of her fellow classmates, noting that some students had lost family members, even a child, as they studied over the past four years.
“Medical school is hard, but life is harder,” she said.
In fact, medical school was the most challenging of Ridley’s four degrees to earn, she said. She was coming in late in the game, the one in her 50s amongst a sea of students in their 20s. Even after she completed her coursework with fair to impressive scores, she had trouble landing a residency. A limited amount of residencies exist for the OB-GYN field, she noted, and the specialty is highly competitive.
When she was not matched with an OB-GYN program earlier this year, she set her sights on internal medicine, where she could thrive building a broader expanse of skills before trying again for the gynecological field.
But even vying for internal medicine residencies proved to be difficult. Ridley waited anxiously before she finally received that phone call from a Florida hospital this March.
“I’m not the one to be in the number one spot,” she said. “I’ve always had to be patient and wait. ... I look at my peers, and sometimes I get jealous. They’re younger and were able to go straight into this program [from their undergraduate studies] and never had to work around things. As a mother, for me, I’m always having to make things work.”
She noted that although employers are legally not allowed to discriminate based on age, she senses potential employers worry she’ll retire in 10 years.
“I want to do this till I pass away in the hallway, till I die,” she said.
Ridley said she’s received nothing but loving support from her younger peers. Her fellow students have been on her side every step of the way, she said, and though their life experiences differ, the younger students have made Ridley feel welcome.
Ridley’s family expressed great admiration for the new doctor.
“We are very thankful and proud of our daughter,” her father, Mac Tucker said. “She has worked really hard, and she deserves everything she gets.”
Ridley’s parents, Mac and Donna Tucker, said as a young child their daughter was always outgoing and hardworking. She loved performing on stage, and when her family saw her take to the podium Saturday afternoon, they were pleasantly surprised — but not shocked.
“When [Ridley] was little, we had a preacher who was awesome in the pulpit,” Donna Tucker said. “And when [Ridley] was at home, she would mimic his speech and look all over the room like he did. And I told her today after the ceremony, ‘You’ve been practicing for this all of your life.”
Ridley’s adult children couldn’t be prouder of their mother for reaching her dream.
“As I saw my mom walk across the stage, I just felt immense happiness for my mom,” daughter Robin York wrote in a text message. “I know how much she has wanted this dream for 30 years, and now it’s actually a reality. She’s worked so hard all these years preparing for this moment and I couldn’t have been prouder today. My role model has been my mom, and my parents’ motto has always been to ‘do what you love doing.’ They would support us 100 percent. My brother and I have learned from both my parents to do just that throughout my mom’s medical school journey.”
“I was immensely proud of her and all she has achieved,” Ryan Ridley said, agreeing with his sister. “Through sheer grit and force of will she has made this happen, and I knew she would. My mother is an impressive woman who shows every day that with plenty of hard work you can be whatever you aspire to be.”