God, family, career and Notre Dame

Amy Kuechenmeister graduated from Notre Dame in 1999. Since then, she has made a number of important strides in her life that ultimately led to a family and a career as a medical doctor. She is forever grateful for the education she received at Notre Dame and believes the school was a critical factor in the success she found in college and in life. 

Kuechenmeister also says her faith in God, which she said was consistently reinforced throughout her time at Notre Dame, was just as important to her educational — and spiritual — journey through her life so far.

In a wide-ranging interview with Kuechenmeister where she discusses everything from her great grandmother and equal rights for women to the Irish Games and Mr. Greg Simon’s tutelage on essay-writing, it became abundantly clear that she is passionate about her faith, her family, her career and her high school. So because she does it best, let’s let Kuechenmeister herself continue the conversation on where she’s been and where she expects to be in the years ahead.

On her experience in college and how she believes that her education at Notre Dame prepared her for success in college and beyond:

College is all about transition and growth. It is a place where you are able to search deep within yourself, and reflect about the path you wish to forge, as well as the person you wish to become. It is a place to think about the path that has led you to be the person you are, as well as to think about which path you wish to go down to enrich the person you hope to be. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. Notre Dame helped prepare me to embark on this journey by setting a solid foundation of awareness and faith that God was on this journey alongside me, and that I was not alone. 

Notre Dame prepared me for this journey not only academically, but emotionally. Academically, the education I received at Notre Dame was completely unmatched by anything I have experienced thus far. I was able to select electives that fostered my interest and love of science, medicine, and humanity. I absolutely love fostering humanity — be it through the arts, the sciences, through spirituality — humanity has so much potential. Each person has so much potential, so much promise, they just need another to urge them to follow their dreams, another to believe in them. Notre Dame believed in me. Every single teacher believed I had every quality necessary to succeed. Their dedication toward me mastering the material, their dedication to their calling inspired me, their belief in me made me start to believe that I was capable of incredible, magical things. I no longer saw dreams as insurmountable, I saw my future through eyes of hope, eyes of enlightenment, eyes of optimism and positivity. Notre Dame allowed me to be my unique, quirky self. They did not pressure me to change, they accepted me as I was and thus I accepted myself, wholly and completely. 

My education was so well-rounded. I was unable to travel a lot growing up, but within the walls of Notre Dame, I may as well have experienced the world. Reading The Odyssey in Ms. Bembas’ class, I was able to travel to Greece. Reading The Great Gatsby, I may as well have been on Long Island. As I crafted art in Mr. Kirby’s class, I could have easily been at an art gallery in New York City. As I sat in my Spanish class, I could imagine I was sitting in a little café in Spain as we learned not only the language but the culture. Mr. Simon taught me an invaluable skill that has served me well throughout my entire life: how to write a well-thought-out essay. In his class, as he taught American government I could have easily traveled to Washington, D.C. The list goes on and on. Physics, chemistry, biology with Ms. Weston, anatomy and physiology, chemistry — all these topics would enrich my life and lead me to find my true passion in life: medicine. 

On her career thus far and how she thinks she arrived at it:

My career path was, much like me, untraditional. I knew I had a love for medicine. I felt it in my heart from the time I was a young child and I had been gifted my first “Doctor Kit.” I would carry it everywhere with me. Much to my family’s chagrin, I would often “borrow” all the bandaids in the house, and provide first aid to every doll, animal (stuffed or live) that I could find. I never doubted for a minute that my calling from God was to practice medicine. I had a knack for science, a gift, and I soaked up information like a sponge. I remember in sixth grade, there were two lungs brought in, that of a smoker, and that of a nonsmoker. While other classmates gagged over the smell of formaldehyde, I was hooked. I was completely in awe. In seventh grade I wrote an essay about how I would become an emergency physician. In eighth grade I learned every single bone in the body by anatomical name, knew every muscle, and knew how light rays would hit the eye to be interpreted by the brain (I was an unusual child with unusual hobbies.). After attending Notre Dame, I had the foundation and the background to succeed with my goals.

Due to my great grandmother being ill, I decided to stay close to home for college. After graduation, I attended Oakland University. I stayed there for a year until I decided I needed to transfer to a university with an undergraduate degree that I could really feel passionate about. I subsequently transferred to Central Michigan University for a major in neuroscience. My education there was amazing. I went to school year-round, and finished my degree magna cum laude after just three years. In that time, I was awarded a grant and an undergraduate publication for my research on the effect of stem cell transplantation in rodent models of Huntington’s disease. It was an amazing opportunity, and I was fortunate to have the best mentors there, who also saw my passion and fostered it.

After graduation from CMU, this is where things got a bit tricky. I knew I loved medicine, and I knew I loved children. I wanted to go to medical school, but would that interfere with my other passion: becoming a mother? I decided for this reason to apply to the physician assisting programs to obtain my master’s degree in medicine. I found a program at the University of Colorado that would allow me to complete a fellowship in pediatrics a year after graduation. I then embarked on a three-year journey out to Colorado.

Never one to make things easy, I decided to pursue my other dream in the meantime. I married my high school sweetheart, and I had two of my three daughters while in PA school: Autumn, now 11, and Kara, now 9. Autumn is by far the most beautiful season in my opinion, and the time of year when I found out I would be a mother. Kara means “sweet melody” in Greece, and Ms. Bembas fostered my love of Greece, so there you have it. After graduating with my master’s, I decided that I missed our families, so we moved back to the Detroit area.

My first job out of school was in the emergency room of the Beaumont Health System. I worked there as a physician’s assistant for about six years. I had one more daughter, Skyler, my little inquisitive “scholar.” I worked nights, raised the girls by day, and tried to be content. I was helping people, practicing medicine, living my dream. Yet, it was not quite my dream. My dream was to be a medical doctor. Being a PA was wonderful, but it had its limitations. I wanted to provide free health care to those who were uninsured, I wanted to change the infrastructure of health care and attainability, I wanted to change the future of medicine to include more holistic patient-centered care. I felt restrictions in my career of choice, and I decided that I had done the whole suburban working mom thing to the best of my ability, but I could not ignore the call that I needed to do MORE. I think God was working within me to do more. 

After much prayer, I took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), I applied to medical schools, and I interviewed. I took the girls with me to each interview, and made sure they had a say in the place we would end up. The year I applied, serendipity/fate/destiny (whatever you want to call it), made it so that Central Michigan University was opening a medical school. So on December 14, 2012, my life changed. I received a phone call that I was one of sixty-four students accepted into the inaugural medical school class at CMU. Moving back to Central Michigan University was like coming home. I had traveled the world searching for my destiny, but had returned home to find it.

I am currently in the middle of my third year of medical school. In that time, I have founded a “Women in Medicine” student organization and an “Emergency Medicine Association.” I have mentored local high-risk groups, I have linked first-generation college students with mentors in their area of interest. I have volunteered with local Head Start preschools, doing science experiments to encourage and foster a love of medicine. I have conducted winter homeless provision drives that have fed and clothed hundreds as they are cared for under bridges, on the street, as they attend traveling shelters. I have held suturing clinics, BRCA breast cancer awareness speeches, domestic violence awareness events, eating disorder outreach, and so many more things I have been blessed with the opportunity to do. By putting my faith in God, he opened up my world to such wonderful things, and placed me right where I needed to be to DO more. I still work as a PA nights and weekends, but somehow with His Grace, I am able to fulfill my dream. 

I am currently in the process of applying to residencies and will graduate with my M.D. in May of 2017. Ironically, my seventh grade self was spot on, I hope to continue in the field of emergency medicine. My journey was long, it was not easy, but it was so rewarding and absolutely humbling. The things we can accomplish when God lives in our hearts! The people who have had faith in me, who have held me up when I was tired and wanted to fall, my family, my friends, I am beyond blessed. My hope is that another woman will see me accomplishing motherhood along with my career goals, and know without a doubt in her heart or mind that she, too, can do the same. For all things are possible with GOD.

On what has been most influential in her college and career aspirations, and on what skills and strengths that she possesses will make her successful in that field: 

The foundation NDP gave me is without a doubt very responsible for my success. My grandpa Hank, who volunteered at free clinics providing care to disabled children was my idol. Grandpa Hank picked me up from NDP every single day, not a short hike, and never once complained. My grandma Rose, who was a special-education teacher, spreading her joy and love to kids who needed it the most, was my role model. My great-grandmother Viola, who taught me the gift of perseverance, strength, dignity and laughter. My mother, a nurse, who took me to work with her and allowed me to “help” at the office on Saturdays. My uncle, who nourished my love for art. My dad who put up with my frustration, and helped me work out that math problem “one more time.” 

My husband, who is without a doubt, my most supportive fan. Without our egalitarian relationship, I would be unable to give 100 percent to being a mother and 100 percent toward my career. I remember sitting in NDP’s Love and Marriage class. The teacher asked us to think about what we would want in a spouse. I knew immediately. A man who was not stuck in traditional roles, a man who saw no task as “woman’s work”, but simply “our work.” A man who would wake up, feed the baby, change diapers, help comb tangles out of our daughter’s hair, a man who would cook, who would do the laundry, who would work alongside me and with me. Who would support my dreams, because they were his as well. We grew together, we struggled together, but through it all, we were a “team.” People often say I am a “feminist.” Feminists fight for egalitarian rights for all. I am proud to be a feminist. Every single person deserves respect. Providing gender roles and expectations, trying to pigeonhole people, trying to force square pegs into round holes, inhibits them from reaching their full potential. Marriage is a partnership, there is no room for narcissism. As I watch my husband paint our little girls’ toenails, I fall in love all over again. 

My girls are, by far, the most influential people for my career success. They look at me with such love, awe and trust. They see me taking strides to make the world a better place, and they start to contribute too. They deliver the homeless clothes and food alongside me, they volunteer with me. The day I walk across the stage to accept my medical doctorate degree, it will not just be mine, it will be ours. Their faith in me, their willingness to leave their friends behind, to leave their familiar surroundings, and to move so that I can follow God’s will for my life, is absolutely the most humbling selfless act of pure love and acceptance. Watching them pack up their belongings in their room full of murals that I painstakingly hand-painted, I got a bit teary-eyed, and I second guessed if I was doing the right thing. They hugged me, and said, “Mommy, you are going to be a doctor!” I realized then and there that the unconditional love that I had been displaying to them, they were now bestowing upon me. No other gift could every compare. 

On any favorite memories or special teachers she had at Notre Dame: 

I have so many favorite memories that I am able to look back on and hold dear. My favorite teacher? All of them! Mr. Simon, Ms. Bembas, Mr. Borton, Mr. Kirby, Mr. McCaskey, Padre Juan, Mr. Seigel, all the “Senoritas and Senoras,” Brother Louis, Father Leon (who always caught me if I broke the dress code). Everyone had a part in making me who I am today.

My friends who have become lifetime friends: my soul sister, Caitlin Dodge, also born on the same day as me, July 4! My partner in crime, Dana House (Crawford). Mis amigas (Kia and Kelly Myricks). The laughter we shared, the acceptance of each other AS IS, was a gift, a blessing that helped see me through the rough times, and still gives me laughter every day. I am blessed to still have all of you in my life. 

A few favorite memories: I absolutely HATED speaking out loud or completing speeches in front of the class. Whenever I am nervous I just laugh. I flat out laugh until I cannot breath, tears, shaking, the whole shebang. One day in American government class, I was supposed to give a speech on a very serious topic. So serious in fact, that I knew I was going to be mortified when my nervous habit presented. Sure enough, I get up behind “the podium,” and I make it through a few sentences before the laughter bubbles up and the tears start coming down. Mr. Simon waved for me to hand my speech to him. He looked over it, and stated, “I could not understand a thing you said, but this is well-written.” I received an A. His acceptance of me, his understanding that I was not laughing to be facetious, turned a rather humiliating experience into a more comforting one. With time, and with practice, I overcame my fear of public speaking, and the laughter subsided as the passion behind the topics grew.

Ms. Bembas once assigned us the task of creating a product and completing a “commercial” to promote it. I remember I made this product that was so safe you could clean anything with it: the floor, use it as shampoo, use it as body wash, you name it, you could use it for that purpose. My friend, Corey Porterfield, agreed to help me out. He got down on his hands and knees and started scrubbing the floor and then jumped up to wash his hair with the product. I immediately, once again, started hysterically laughing, and Ms. Bembas just shook her head and chimed in. That is the thing about Notre Dame, the teachers know you, they know who you are as a person, every idiosyncrasy, and they do not try to change you, they accept you, they foster your uniqueness into success. 

Also, the Irish Games are always a favorite time. Once my friend Dana and I tried to win the three-legged race warrior-style, and we practiced so much, we went home with rope burns, and bruising all the way up from our ankles to our thighs. I had my share of falls from the top of the pyramid as well. Definitely not for the weak!

On how as an alumnus she feels about supporting her high-school alma mater: 

Support of an alma mater is like supporting your family. Extended family who has helped you grow, who has enriched you into a well-rounded person, and who has provided you with the tools to succeed. In addition, every single student is also extended family, whether you have met them or not. They are going through the same experiences you once did. They are getting the same chances, the same opportunities that you once had. If you think about the difference that Notre Dame has made for you, the only option is to pay it forward. 

We all have gifts. One of the most valuable gifts we have is the gift of time. In our high-tech, fast-paced world, we often forget this. Time is finite, but it is free, it can be opened up. When someone gives you their time, there is no greater gift. They are giving a part of themselves to you, a part they cannot give back. 

Every single teacher, every single administrator at Notre Dame would give you their time, even today, were you to need it. Were you to need their help, their guidance, they would provide it. Time is a gift that everyone can give back in their own unique way. Notre Dame is a place we will always belong, a place we can all find comfort, for the simple fact that “once family, always family.”

We are the heart of the Fighting Irish. We are “one Notre Dame.” 

One final thing: If anyone needs a mentor for science, or has any questions about pursuing a career in the medical field, please feel free to contact me at kuech1ar@cmich.edu

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.

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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy

Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." The Marist Fathers and Brothers sponsor NDPMA's Catholic identity and manages its educational program. Notre Dame is accredited by the National Association of Independent Schools, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.