It Ain’t Over: She Went to Medical School to Cure Her Daughter and Wound Up Saving Her Mother’s Life
By the time Mary Ann Block was 27, she was living her dream. She’d grown up wanting to follow in her mother and her grandmother’s footsteps — and that’s what she did. She was a stay-at-home mom with two kids and she cherished every minute of it.
“I was the mom who collected toilet paper rolls and paper cartons for the kids to do arts and crafts,” Mary Ann laughed. “I was a room mother, camp fire leader, president of the parent’s club and our house was always decorated for Halloween. All I wanted was to make my kid’s lives the best they could be.”
So when her daughter Michelle became ill, Mom stepped up her game. When Michelle couldn’t go out, Mary Ann created a summer camp at home, building a golf course with Pringles cans and holding marshmallow roasts around the kitchen stove. And she made it her mission to find the best medical care.
“When Michelle was just two,” Mary Ann explained, “she began having bladder infections. The first doctor we saw thought she was just jealous of her new little brother and another said it was all in her head. And then there were the ones who threw drugs at the problem. I remember a doctor who prescribed an antibacterial drug and when I said that I had read that the drug could cause neurological problems, he told me to quit reading.
“I grew up believing doctors know everything and you’re supposed to do what they say. So when the next one prescribed Valium and an antidepressant, I gave them to her. I questioned it, but I did it, because he told me if I didn’t do it, she’d never get well.”
But Michelle wasn’t getting well. She was actually getting sicker. By the time she was seven, she was spending summers inside with bouts of mono and strep throat. And that’s when Mary Ann did what she thought any good mother would do — she snuck into the local medical library.
“It was the ’70s and you couldn’t just Google back then,” Mary Ann recalled. “It was hard to find information unless you were a doctor. But I found what I needed. I found out that the drugs she was on weakened her immune system. I asked other doctors about it, but they were protecting each other and wouldn’t admit that one of their own could have caused this.”
But all of that changed when Mary Ann found a new doctor who billed himself as a medical detective.
“Rather than giving her drugs,” Mary Ann continued, “he looked for what was causing the problem. And what he found was a common allergy — the kind of allergy that gives most people a runny nose, but it was causing a reaction in Michelle’s bladder.”
For five years, Michelle had been drugged and Mary Ann had been dismissed — seen as an overly anxious mom, when all it would have taken was routine allergy testing. That’s when Mary Ann decided that no one else was ever going to put her family at risk. She wanted to know what the doctors knew — so at the age of 39, she decided to become one.
“If I didn’t know what doctors knew,” she said, “this could happen again and I couldn’t let that happen to my family.”
So after taking two years of pre-med classes, Mary Ann was accepted to medical school, where she was mentored by the doctor who had finally diagnosed her daughter. It had been nearly 20 years since she’d been in a classroom, and now she was juggling 40 hours of classes, 80 hours of studying and two teenage children.
“It was the hardest thing I ever did,” Mary Ann remembered. “Most of the students came in with four years of pre-med or nursing degrees, but it was all foreign to me. I felt like I had to work 10 times harder than anyone else. And it didn’t make sense to go to med school for my family and then dump them to do it, so I cooked and froze six months of meals. I turned a closet into an office, so I could go in there and study, and while I couldn’t be the president of the PTA, I would slip out of rotations to make sure I was at my children’s plays and tennis matches.”
And by the time her youngest child, Randy, picked up his high school diploma, Mary Ann was setting up an office in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. What she couldn’t have known was that six months later, she would be using her medical degree to once again heal her family.
“My mother was coughing. She didn’t have a cold, but the coughing wouldn’t stop. The doctors found a huge tumor that had metastasized in the middle of her chest. She had lung cancer and the physicians at MD Anderson Cancer Center told me that she had six months to live. It always makes me furious to hear doctors say things like that. They’re not God. And I refused to let them give her a time limit.”
Once again Mary Ann began doing research, only this time she had credentials, access to medical literature and a circle of colleagues with integrated practices. While her mother was treated with traditional forms of chemotherapy and radiation, to relieve her pain, Mary Ann sought out alternative therapies including magnesium injections and vitamin C IVs, hypnosis and visualization in the hope of extending her mother’s life. And her mother, who always believed in the power of positive thinking, began to believe even more.
“Four months later I brought my mother to the doctor and he said, ‘We’re going to stop her treatment.’ I thought, ‘Why, she’s not done?’ And then he threw up an x-ray and said, ‘The tumor is gone.’
“In oncology, they never say a patient is cured,” Mary Ann explained. “They say the cancer is in remission. But she was cured. My mother lived for 18 more years. She saw her three granddaughters get married and she was here for the birth of three great grandchildren.
Mary Ann’s mother lived to the age of 92. “For me it was, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ And I wasn’t going to be fooled by medicine again. I had doctors tell me that she never really had cancer, that metastatic lung cancer isn’t curable, so she must not have had it, which was ridiculous — she had a huge mass and a biopsy done. But that’s the way many doctors think — no one survives lung cancer, so why even try? I think that’s criminal. How many people in my mother’s situation would have lived if they had the same access?”
And Mary Ann’s father had a long life as well. Around the retirement village where he lived, most of the residents spent time comparing lists of medications they were taking, but his friends would marvel at the fact that he only took two. And he proudly credited his good health to the advice of his daughter.
“I went to medical school for my family,” Mary Ann said, glancing up at pictures of her late parents, “but I thought it was for my kids. I had no idea it would help me save my mother’s life or keep my father around for so long.
“While not everyone can go to medical school, every patient should be treated like family and that’s what I try to do in my practice today. I want people to know that they should have that kind of high standard — because they deserve it.”