Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

'Thank You, Stranger': Just when she was about to quit med school to care for her newborn, a professor made all the difference

Woman and baby
Connie Dale with her son.
Courtesy of Connie Dale

Has someone ever taken you by surprise with a kindness that made a big difference in your life? Our series, "Thank You, Stranger," looks at those special people and their impact. A woman from Pine Springs, Minn., outside of Stillwater, takes us to a critical moment in her journey through medical school.

Connie Dale was in her third year of medical school when she gave birth to her first child. Going straight back to school with a newborn at home wasn’t easy for many reasons, but one simple act of kindness kept her going.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you're with us here on Minnesota Now. I'm Cathy Wurzer. Has someone ever taken you by surprise with a kindness that made a big difference in your life? Our series "Thank You, Stranger" looks at those special people and their impact.

Today, a woman from Pine Springs, Minnesota, outside of Stillwater, takes us to a critical moment in her journey through medical school. MPR producer Ellen Finn has the story.


ELLEN FINN: In February 2020, Connie Dale was in her third year of medical school at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland. She was about to start a rotation in obstetrics and gynecology, and she herself was just a few weeks into new motherhood. If they can, many medical students in her position would take a semester off.

CONNIE DALE: I just didn't have that option because I took out some significant student loans. And if you take six months off of college or whatever, that-- all of a sudden, your loans start repayment. I had to just push through. It was scary because I was becoming a mom for the first time, and everybody was telling me that it's going to be harder than you think. And they're right.

ELLEN FINN: Take, for example, pumping breast milk. Each day, Connie took the train and walked to the hospital in the city center. She lugged a laptop and schoolbooks in one bag and a pump, ice packs, and bottles in another.

CONNIE DALE: And I had just given birth, like, a few weeks earlier. I was still sore. I was still feeling baggy, I suppose is kind of the way-- you feel like a stretched-out balloon walking around the place, and through the rain, because it's Ireland.

ELLEN FINN: In Ireland, employers are supposed to provide a place to pump.

CONNIE DALE: And so I was asking around in a maternity hospital, nonetheless. But in Ireland, our hospitals are hundreds of years old. Every nook and cranny of the hospital is used. And so there was no place for me to pump. They said I could use the bereavement office, which was unfortunately in use quite often.

So I found myself pumping in a bathroom stall, which is just dehumanizing, besides the obvious worries about hygiene. It felt stupid. It just felt like there wasn't a place for me. That's what it came down to.

ELLEN FINN: If the bereavement office happened to be empty, Connie still had to find somewhere to store the milk where she knew she'd be able to pick it up when she left. So she had to go back and forth to a freezer on a remote wing of the fifth floor. To make things worse, all her classes were held off campus.

CONNIE DALE: I was getting frustrated. And I had postpartum depression as well. I didn't quite know what was going on, but I was feeling really just not like myself. Especially with all of this, I felt like I've given up my career for this. And I think anybody who's gone into medicine knows that you create this identity around yourself becoming a doctor. Anything that gets in the way of that, you feel like it's getting in the way of me becoming me.

And finally, I decided something's got to give. And I'm going to lose myself, and I'm going to lose my family if I don't do something. And unfortunately, the decision I had come to was I have to quit medical school.

ELLEN FINN: Connie knew that if she quit, she probably wouldn't go back. In the morning her rotation was going to begin, she called the loan officer to find out how high the payments would be once they kicked in.

CONNIE DALE: It was going to be heavy. I remember calling my husband. And I was crying. And do I even go to placement today? I'm planning on quitting. I've already called. And he was like, just go until the end of the week. It's not going to hurt you. You're already in the city center making these calls, so why don't you just go? I was like, OK, so less than enthusiastic about going in that day. Really just sad because I felt like I'd been throwing away years of my life.

I went in that day to lecture. And I remember I didn't even take notes on the lecture because I just thought, what's the point? And the lecture was given by Professor Declan Keane, who's an obstetrician/gynecologist at the National Maternity Hospital there.

ELLEN FINN: And that's when, out of the blue, something big changed for Connie.

CONNIE DALE: After class, I was just packing up my stuff, ready to go home, same sort of mopey mood that I was in. And he goes, are you Connie? And I said, yeah. And he said, um, one of the nurses mentioned, and I heard in passing, that you were having a hard time finding a place to pump for your son. And I said, yeah, yeah. I was like, actually, they're having me share the bereavement office with the priest. And it's not going so great. [LAUGHS]

He said, well, my office is just there, around the corner of these classes. You're welcome to have my key. And he's like, and my secretary-- I've mentioned that I was going to offer my office to you, so she knows that you're coming. He's like, I also have a mini fridge in there, so you're welcome at any time. He's like, I'm not there at all during the day. I'm always in delivery or in surgeries or whatever.

And it was just so, like, what? I remember getting chills because it was like, did he just change everything? [LAUGHS] And it sounds so silly because all he offered me was an office and a mini fridge. But that's literally all I was asking for. And for some reason, nobody could get that for me up until this point. And it had meant to me that this world, this medical profession, was not going to be accepting of me as a mother. And all of a sudden, this man had changed everything. It meant there are people out there that care. And it was-- I can do this. I can do that.

I finished out the rotation just fine. And it's amazing what medications can do for post-partum depression. I felt like myself again. And these sort of things, these hold ups, didn't end up becoming such a big deal anymore.

ELLEN FINN: Connie went on to have another child during medical school. Her due date for her second child was actually the same day as her final exam. Since becoming a doctor, Connie has moved back to Pine Springs, Minnesota to help care for her parents. And she's currently applying for residencies in the US. There's just one thing she would like to say to Professor Declan Keane.

CONNIE DALE: Thanks for the degree. [LAUGHS]


CATHY WURZER: That was Connie Dale in our latest episode of "Thank You, Stranger," a series about people helping people in unexpected ways. To see a picture of Connie with her family, go to our website, mprnews.org. And if you've got a story about someone unexpectedly helping you out-- well, let us know. You can email us at MinnesotaNow@npr.org. You can call our story line at 612-361-1252. That story, by the way, was produced by Ellen Finn and Alana Elder. Music is by St. Paul's Dan Luke.

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