Emily Wachner believes the scenic journey she has taken so far will, one day, make her a good doctor.

A priest's new calling

Emily Wachner believes the scenic journey she has taken so far will, one day, make her a good doctor.
emily wachner with her two kids in an apple orchard on a sunny day

EMILY WACHNER IS not afraid to discuss her failures, her quirks, or the challenges of her life. In fact, she volunteers them.  

In an interview about being a non-traditional medical student — one who enters medical school later than most — she offers that she failed her first exam at IU School of Medicine. In fact, she says she’s failed more than one.   

More than a decade ago, she says, Wachner realized she had a drinking problem. She sought treatment, got sober and has never looked back.  

She served as an Episcopal priest for 15 years. And while she is proud of that experience and what it taught her, she has become less dogmatic in her beliefs.  

Today, at 41 years old, she’s trying — with the support of her extended family — to balance medical school with raising two young children and, occasionally, getting some sleep. 

If she makes it to graduation — and Wachner has rallied from the early setbacks — she will be 45 years old when she’s awarded her MD. Another three years of residency — she wants to be an OB-GYN — and she’ll be 48. And, here again, she acknowledges, “There’s a different return on investment at that point.” 

Wachner can’t help but be forthright. When she was a priest, she talked about her flaws before congregations. Today, she talks openly with her classmates and the faculty about them. 

“I remember being in my 20s and just being very, very self-conscious. I had a lot of anxiety about how people saw me,” she said. “I don’t have that anymore. I’m not anxious about others’ perspectives on me or what I should be doing.” 

Her life experiences — the good and the bad — have helped clarify Wachner’s priorities. In fact, she and others are convinced that the scenic journey she has taken so far will, one day, make her a good doctor. 

“I love being with people and I’m able to relate to people from lots of different backgrounds,” she said. “It’s easy for me to sit down with someone who is experiencing homelessness or who has struggled with addiction or struggling at all. I can relate to that because I struggled too.” 

on the north side of Indianapolis. She has cousins who are doctors. Her grandmother was a nurse who ran field hospitals in Germany and France during World War II. “She was as close to a trauma surgeon as a woman could be in the 1940s,” Wachner said. 

Although Wachner loved math and science, she followed a different path — a degree in cultural anthropology and master’s from Yale Divinity School. In her mid-20s, she became an Episcopal priest. 

emily wachner leads a service in the garb of an episcopal priest

That journey led her to a parish in St. Louis and then another in New York — Trinity Church Wall Street. Specifically, she served at the church’s St. Paul’s Chapel, which was founded during the American Revolution and which became a poignant symbol of hope after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which felled the World Trade Center just a few blocks away. 

Wachner performed baptisms and funerals, presided at weddings, and took confessions. She used the Spanish she learned as a child to teach Hispanic congregations. She led a group of pilgrims on a hike of Spain’s Camino de Santiago. She counseled people with drug addictions and who’d been in prison. “It was an amazing honor to be a part of people's lives,” she said, “both at their most joyous and most sorrowful points.” 

Wachner had a thriving ministry and a bright future as a priest. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With two small children and, suddenly, no day care options, she opted to stay home. Along with caring for the kids, it gave her time to think. “I was able to take a full stop on my grownup professional life and ask, ‘Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?’”  

She wondered if there was something else. “There is not a huge amount of space for logic in theology,” Wachner said. “I found myself being drawn back to math and science.” 

She took a pre-Calculus class online “to see if my brain still worked,” she said. She took more math and science classes, even doing experiments in her basement as her kids slept at night. Her brain still worked. And so, at 40 years old, Wachner applied to medical school. And the questions soon followed. Even her twin sister, Kate, said: “You are crazy. What do you think you’re doing?” 

Those questions got louder — in her own head — after she failed that first exam at IU School of Medicine. Wachner had been a high school valedictorian, with a graduate degree from Yale. She’d never gotten anything below a C. And this was a jolt. “I really questioned whether I had made a terrible mistake and that I was on the hook for $30,000 in loans and this was the end,” she said.  

Wachner cried for a bit, entertained some self-doubt, and then went to sleep.  

“I woke the next day and I realized that this was just the first time I’m going to experience some kind of failure over the next seven years,” she said. “There’s no getting better without failure. If I wasn’t able to rise above that, to work harder, to learn whatever lesson I was meant to learn from that failure, that would be when I knew I didn’t belong here.” 

So, Wachner got to work. She took advantage of the school’s free resources — a tutor, for starters. She also met with the school’s new cognitive psychologist, who specializes in the science of learning. Part of her problem, Wachner learned, was that her study habits were outdated. Her first pass through college started back in 2001, or as she puts it, “when most of my classmates were in utero.” She was accustomed to taking handwritten notes during lectures, but she was advised that it’s better to watch and listen, then go back and take notes from the recorded lecture.  

Emily Walvoord, MD, associate dean for student affairs at IU School of Medicine, said it’s not unusual for high-achieving college students to be waylaid by their first exam in medical school. “Medical school is hard for everybody. It should be hard,” Walvoord said. “That’s not uncommon for people to take a little while to find their footing.” 

Walvoord credits Wachner for taking advantage of the free resources the school offers to help its students. “To go back into that student study, test-taking role is very different,” said Emily Walvoord, MD, associate dean for student affairs at IU School of Medicine. 

Wachner passed the class. She credits the school’s support staff for helping her. “I worked smarter, not harder,” she said. Now, when she passes Walvoord in the hall, they exchange high fives.  

Walvoord said there are redundancies in the curriculum to ensure students master material they may have first struggled with. And she credits Wachner, and other non-traditional students, for what they bring to IU and to medicine. 

“Our non-traditional students know what it’s like to live and work in the real world. They can share those experiences with their classmates. It helps their classmates have a different perspective on the patients they will care for,” she said. “They also bring a certain level of maturity that they can share when approaching problems in general.” 

One example of that was when, during a panel discussion on spirituality in medicine, the moderator couldn’t make it to facilitate a discussion among hospital chaplains. Wachner not only knew the chaplains but was comfortable enough speaking in front of groups on the fly — and on the topic of spirituality — that she conducted the discussion to much acclaim. 

Her concern for and comfort level with people experiencing homelessness, honed as a priest, inspired Wachner — and two other students — to seek a research grant that would enable them to conduct a summer assessment of how unhoused people access medical care. Eventually, she’d love to see the establishment of a street medicine program based out of IU School of Medicine. 

To prepare her to serve Hispanic patients, Wachner is taking a class on the Foundations of Clinical Practice in Spanish. It’s taught by native Spanish speakers and helps students learn to do physical exams and discuss clinical aspects in Spanish. 

Ultimately, Wachner’s goal is to be an OB-GYN so she can help improve Indiana’s maternal and infant mortality rates. “I don’t think there’s anything that motivates me more than helping women in Indiana,” she said.  

She has also taken inspiration from the namesake one of her scholarships.  

The Annique Wilson-Weekes scholarship was created by the IU School of Medicine Class of 2014 in honor of one of their classmates, a mother of two who died from gastric cancer while a first-year medical student. ``I think of her often,” Wachner said. “I think of how hard it must have been for her to do school. I know how hard it is. And, also, it was such a tragedy to lose someone who knew so much and had experienced so much. So, I really try to honor her with my work.” 

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Bobby King

Bobby King is the director of development and alumni communications in the Office of Gift Development. Before joining the IU School of Medicine in 2018, Bobby was a reporter with The Indianapolis Star. Before that he was a reporter for newspapers in Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.