Patricia Olson found an unconventional way to cure her chronic migraines: gymnastics lessons, at age 37. “I wanted to create cognitive dissonance to tell my body that I was truly healthy,” says Olson, a neuroscientist with a personal interest in the mind-body connection. “If I had a migraine at the beginning of a lesson, by the end of the hour it would be gone.” Over time Olson weaned herself off 16 prescription medications and became migraine free. Today she is enrolled in medical school with the aim of treating patients with chronic pain.
Olson first considered attending medical school in 1996 after graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor of science degree in biology. “But a PhD was my heart’s desire, so I went that route first,” says Olson. Her graduate studies at Northwestern University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience program got off to a rocky start, however. When she struggled with her first class in neuroanatomy, Olson’s professor paired her with a classmate who aced the material. Olson not only passed the class but married her study partner. She completed her PhD in 2005 and went on to become a researcher in cognitive medicine, neurology, and pharmacology.
But Olson was forced to quit working when migraines incapacitated her. Her gymnastics cure was based on what she learned as a patient of Dr. John S. Stracks, a physician at Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrated Medicine. “My pain pathways were over-activated. I had to rewire my brain.”
Freed from pain, Olson revived her long deferred dream of medical school. She applied mind-body techniques like visualization and controlled breathing to improve her MCAT scores and was soon sharing those techniques as an instructor in MCAT prep courses. But a medical school interviewer told her she needed to do more: “He said, ‘You haven’t been in a classroom for several years; you have to show us you can still read a syllabus, take exams and write papers.’”
Heeding that advice, Olson enrolled in a bioethics class taught by Mark Sheldon at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies. “It was like manna from heaven,” says Olson, who was thrilled to be back in the classroom. “You talk about intense issues and get a variety of perspectives. Some of the students were 18 years younger than I was, but they were my peers in applying to medical school.”
Olson went on to complete a specialized study post-baccalaureate certificate at SPS in medicine and society in 2014 and was admitted to Indiana University School of Medicine two weeks before her 40th birthday. “My age wasn’t an issue but an asset,” says Olson. “In the interview I was able to talk about the classes I’d been taking at Northwestern. I had spent time thinking about these topics, letting my ideas marinate. The interview became a conversation.”