A woman with a stethoscope around her neck standing next to a girl in a dark red dress.
Rachel Easter with her daughter Victoria Stevenson, 11, in front of the Egyptian Building. Easter said being a mother has given her more patience, tolerance and empathy. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: Medical school graduate Rachel Easter loves to hear patients’ stories

Her winding path to medicine is bolstered by her background in the arts and business, spurred by family tragedy and fueled by a desire for a profession with constant challenge and learning.

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Rachel Easter is the oldest student graduating from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine this year.

Having experienced marriage, motherhood, post-partum depression, divorce and jobs that felt like dead ends, Easter loved being in medical school and knowing there was a light at the end of the tunnel with the prospect of an interesting, impactful career.

“Overall, medical school was wonderful,” said Easter who just turned 40. “But my perspective is different because I'm a nontraditional student. I have worked a lot of jobs. I have worked some terrible jobs. I have worked with the promise of nothing in the future, not having any money in my account and not having any prospect that there will be any in the future.”

Easter started her higher education path as an undergraduate art student at VCU but dropped out. She then started a direct mail jewelry retail company with a partner and later completed a business degree at the University of Richmond, all while working multiple jobs ranging from minimum-wage positions to the corporate sector.

Tragedies propelled Easter to become intimately close to psychiatry and mental health issues. Her father attempted suicide and she ended up caring for him as he recovered, which entailed navigating health care services for people with low incomes. Mental illness caused her brother to become estranged from their family and tragically die in a natural disaster.

The experiences caused Easter to consider a medical career. Once Easter decided on the medical school path, she enrolled in VCU’s postbaccalaureate premed program.

“Characteristics of a medical career and being a doctor, and being a researcher really appealed to me,” Easter said. “What was most inspiring about the path that I was going to take were my family experiences, my family background, and exposures to the medical field. They obviously have a profound impact on how you perceive medicine in general, how you perceive doctors.”

Easter has connected most to the clinical office space and working one-on-one with patients.

“I found that I loved people's stories,” said Easter. “What I really enjoyed was working with people, learning more about ‘What is your story? Who are you? What are your goals? And how can I help facilitate the goals that you have, with the tools that I have?’ I found that was fascinating.”

Easter is the mother of an 11-year-old daughter and believes motherhood has given her “so much more patience and tolerance for people’s experiences that I didn’t have before.”

“I had a child before medical school,” Easter said. “I would not have been the doctor that I will be without those experiences. Children, I think, change you for the better and give you a perspective and an empathy towards people's everyday struggles and how hard it is to just live life. It's challenging.”

Being a single mother and medical student was not easy. Many times, when classmates got together for evening social events, family obligations kept Easter at home. COVID years with distance learning proved to be a silver lining, because she could be home with her daughter, with the distractions that came along with it.

“I think the most challenging thing about having a family and being in medical school specifically, is you're there to learn and it's really challenging to only focus on learning when there's a hundred other things that you know you need to take care of when you get home and they're non-negotiable because your child can't wait,” Easter said. “It was hard for me to focus sometimes just on that learning part when there's other things that need to take up my brain space.”

Her perseverance paid off when she received numerous scholarships over the course of her medical school career including the Drs. Julie C. Moller and John B. Sanford Endowed Scholarship, the Joseph Collins Foundation Scholarship for medical students with an art background and the Hanover County Medical Society Scholarship.

In June, Easter will start a residency in psychiatry at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke. She appreciates the opportunity to make an impact in a rural area and to enjoy the proximity to nature – something she loved about her childhood in Winchester, Virginia.

Easter is interested in blending some biological-based psychiatry in her residency to understand more about what's happening in the body and brain physically and molecularly, and how her patients can benefit from psychiatric treatment.

“With the arts and all of the other experiences that I've had, they especially translate really well into psychiatry, because you're able to connect with people on so many more levels and really understand different aspects of people's lives,’ Easter said. “But I’m also able to think creatively about things and to think a little bit more outside the box. I have found the way I think is a little bit nonlinear. I can go back to the linear, but a lot of scientists can't do that.”

Easter said it was crucial for her to find a career path that would encourage her to be constantly challenged and constantly learning.

“Even the toughest days where you fail at something and you're uncomfortable, even through all of those challenges, medical school has been the best experience I could have possibly asked for,” said Easter. “I loved it.”