Elizabeth Ceballos and Alyssa Rammer emphasize the key role family and friends have played in their lives. But the force fueling their success is the women themselves.
Becoming a mom was not anywhere near Alyssa Rammer’s to-do list. A biology and psychology double major and gymnastic team member at Hamline University, she had been using birth control when she discovered she was 20 weeks’ pregnant.
Rammer, then 19, did not plan to have a relationship with the baby’s father and wasn’t sure she wanted to become a parent. But after a trip to an adoption agency, she concluded, “I didn’t think I’d be okay with having someone else raise my child.”
Rammer, who finished her spring-semester courses at Hamline right before the birth of son Porter in June 2004, praises her gymnastic teammates for rallying around her and her baby.
“Looking back, if it hadn’t been for the girls, it would have been a very different story,” says Rammer, now a third-year DMU student. “For the first two years of his life, Porter hung out with 20 gymnasts.”
“He could tell you more about your kidneys than the average six-year-old”
Even with the support of family and friends, she still had to take a hard look at her dream of becoming a doctor, a goal she’s had since age two.
“I thought, ‘I can’t be a single mom and a doctor.’ I thought about nursing or [becoming a] physician assistant,” she says.
However, Sarah Manning, D.O., Porter’s pediatrician, saw something in Rammer that perhaps the young mother couldn’t: After Porter was born, she maintained a near-perfect undergraduate grade-point average.
“The pediatrician said, ‘If you can do all that, you can go to medical school and be a doctor,'” Rammer recalls. Her first medical school interview was at DMU.
“I walked on campus and thought, ‘I’m supposed to be here,'” Rammer says. “It’s so family-oriented. I’ve had an easier time here than in undergraduate.”
Not that it’s easy. Rammer recalls a particularly bumpy time after she’d broken up with her boyfriend – with whom she’s reunited – when classes and labs were especially intense.
“My mom came down almost every weekend because I was losing my mind. I felt like I didn’t have enough time to do anything,” she recalls. “Porter was watching too much TV. There were moments when I felt like I was being a bad mom.”
Still, that Rammer has largely juggled all her roles successfully demonstrates her determination. In addition to her D.O. degree, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in anatomy. Last year, she was a teaching assistant in surgery. She admits being “OCD” about attending lectures. But she prioritizes time with Porter, now six, a popular little man on campus who loves sushi and who “could tell you more about your kidneys than your average six-year-old.”
As for most medical students, time management is critical. Rammer attends classes, takes a lunch break, studies on campus until 5:30 p.m. and then fetches Porter from Children’s Garden, a daycare center next to DMU. “I remember last year thinking, ‘Have I been a mom all this time?'” she marvels. “Looking back, I have no idea how I did it. I just did it.”
Upon further reflection, though, she says, “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had Porter when I did. At the time, I wasn’t on track to be serious about what I was going to do. Then it was, ‘Okay, it’s time to get serious – you’re not a teenager any more, you’ve got to be responsible for someone else.’
“When I don’t have a lot on my plate,” she adds, “I’m not very productive.”
There were realities in Elizabeth Ceballos’ life that made medical school a seemingly dim possibility. The oldest of six, she was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. When she was 16, her mother pointed out a factory in their Idaho town and told her that’s where Ceballos would work one day. In her senior year of high school, she became pregnant.
Two factors empowered Ceballos, now a third-year osteopathic medicine student, to overcome all that: her desire for a different life and the very high standards she holds for herself. Both would be critical amid the increasing demands of her world: She graduated from high school on May 29, 2000; son Andres was born three days later. She also met a young man, Jose Ceballos, who worked at the restaurant where she was waiting tables. Their son, Blayz, was born 15 months after his brother. Jose and Elizabeth married in 2002.
In 2003, Elizabeth enrolled at Idaho State University, which entailed a two-hour bus commute one way, while Jose worked and his mother watched the kids.
“I knew I wanted an education, I just didn’t know in what,” she recalls. “It never crossed my mind to become a doctor.”
The health sciences and anatomy courses she enjoyed led her to consider becoming a physician assistant. On the commuter bus to Idaho State, she met an upper-class student, Lisa Jaramillo, who was determined to become a doctor; she encouraged Elizabeth to do the same.
She kept in touch with Jaramillo, now a fourth-year DMU student. Ceballos visited her and decided DMU “was the place I wanted to come to school.”
That was the beginning of even more heavy lifting for their family. Other than Jaramillo, they knew no one in Iowa. They traded their house in Idaho for a smaller, two-bedroom apartment in West Des Moines. They had to find a job for Jose and a school for Andres and Blayz, by then third- and first-graders, respectively.
“I went through two to three months of thinking I didn’t do the right thing. It was a hard transition, to get accustomed to the speed of the information,” Elizabeth says. She struggled with going from being a dean’s list student as an undergraduate to earning a C on her first biochemistry test at DMU. “I really doubted I was going to make it,” she recalls. “I moved my family and have all this debt.”
Several things kept her going: Jose’s relentless encouragement, their sons’ love for their school, the support of new friends and her own determination.
“I kept pushing away. I like going to school, and once I got used to it, it became easier to balance,” she says. “I told myself there was no other way. I’m pretty driven.”
She hopes their sons will benefit from her choices, to make up for the family time she’s had to sacrifice. “It’s a given they’ll go to college, too,” she says. “I tell them that whatever they want to do, make it something they like to do.”
That’s where Elizabeth is now. That factory in her Idaho hometown? She never set foot in it. She revels at the thought of her recent rotation at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines.
“I’m working with a roomful of surgeons – I have to pinch myself sometimes,” she smiles. “I’m right where I want to be, doing totally what I love.”