One of my mother's cousins died yesterday.
I hadn't seen in her a long time - there's a fair amount of distance in my family, literally and figuratively. Miriam was married to my mother's first cousin. He's an internist (that runs in my family) and she initially trained as a pediatrician and then did a psych residency so she could practice pediatric psych. Which she did; she was still working part-time when she took ill, just a month or so ago.
According to her obituary, Miriam graduated from medical school in 1971, shortly before I turned 11. I didn't remember the exact dates. I do remember - quite clearly - that she was the first woman physician I'd known. There were lots and lots of doctors in my family. They were all men. At that age, I planned to be a nurse. It had never occurred to me that I could be a doctor. And then I met Miriam.
I made up my mind when I was 14 - I was going to medical school. Miriam started sending me occasional articles from JAMA about women in medicine. It was one of those articles that I learned that there was a first wave of women in medicine in the early 20th century; I asked my grandfather and he told me that his med school class was about 30% women (he graduated in 1927). The Great Depression, the rampant discrimination that made it impossible for women to join hospital staffs and the post-WWII pressure for women to leave the workplace changed all that. My father graduated from the same medical school in 1958 and there were six women in his class. Miriam was part of the second wave, the women who went to med school when the OR changing rooms still said "Doctors" and "Nurses" instead of "Men" and "Women" and when women were still routinely asked why they were taking a spot away from a man, since they were just going to quit and have babies anyway. Miriam had babies - two of them - and never quit. She was the first Mother in Medicine in my life.
I don't know what my life's path would have been if I hadn't watched Miriam walk hers. Even from a distance, she was an inspiration to me, and in many ways my first mentor. I just sent a condolence note to her husband telling him that. I will always regret that I never told her.
When we are touched by death, we often want to hold our loved ones closer, and I will do that. I will also think about the other mentors who have touched my life, and start thanking them today, while I have time.