I met Dr. Ruth O’Neal in 1975 when I was applying to medical schools. A gruff, older, white-haired lady, she was one of several doctors who interviewed me at Bowman Gray School of Medicine, now called Wake Forest. I remember it so clearly. I wanted medical school more than I wanted anything; I had never imagined myself being anything other than a doctor.
The Bowman Gray application was unusual. It included, along with all the typical stuff, a blank page, with instructions of “Use this blank page to tell us anything else you think we should know about you.” Now people would agonize over this page, crafting the perfect essay, right? But then, I was a naïve small-town college student, who didn’t realize how high the stakes were, and I fired off a few paragraphs about the summer I spent hitchhiking with my backpack in Europe.
So, there I was, sitting in Dr. O’Neal’s office, being grilled. She was serious and intimidating, but I felt I’d done OK. Then, her last question. Drawing herself up straight, she glared at me.
“Miss Fleming, out of all the young women I have interviewed, you are the only one who chose NOT to use this space (She pointed to my hitchhiking essay.) to defend her position as a woman in medicine!”
Now, you must remember the time. In 1972, Title IX had been passed and schools were facing the prospect of admitting more women to many fields. The Equal Rights Amendment had been approved by the House and Senate and in 1975 it was awaiting states’ ratification. Gloria Steinem was regularly in the news. It was a heady time.
Oh, no! She’s a woman’s libber, and I’ve offended her! There goes medical school!
Without thinking, I blurted the truth. “Well, it never occurred to me! I didn’t think it was pertinent!”
She stared at me, a grin slowly crossing her face. “Wonderful!” she boomed.
And I was accepted to Bowman Gray School of Medicine.
During the seven years I was at Bowman Gray (medical school and pediatric residency), Dr. O’Neal was a mentor and trusted friend. She was experienced, level-headed, and had seen everything. Her advice was always solid. She was endlessly enthusiastic, white-water rafting and hiking when she was in her 70s. After I finished training and was out in the big world, her home was always a welcome home away from home for me when I visited Winston-Salem.
She had done her medical training at The Mayo, in the 1930s, one of only two or three women in her class. She remembered that there were so few of them, the men treated them more like mascots, rather than any real threat or competition. One of the 22 women in my class of 95 people, I was to have a different experience. Dr. O’Neal taught me to ignore the actions of small-minded people. “Keep your head down and practice great pediatrics. Then nobody can say a word about you. Just be excellent and rise above it.” She counseled. That advice stood me in good stead over the years.
Dr. O’Neal died in 1990 after a fulfilling and happy life. She loved butterflies, in her garden, on fabric, framed, in jewelry. I keep a framed yellow butterfly on my shelf, to remind me of her, and how she changed my life.