Humanist Ruth Kvistad hopes to help others through medicine, philosophy
Ruth Kvistad hadn’t planned on more school.
Neither of her parents had college degrees, and her high school wasn’t pushing students to apply. Then, her senior year, Kvistad was cleaning out fryers as part of a fundraiser for a local organization. One of her co-volunteers accidentally opened the valve at the bottom of a fryer, and a mix of boiling water, soap and remnant oil gushed onto Kvistad’s foot, burning her badly.
Through the intensive care needed to heal her injury, she ended up in the office of Dr. John Felder at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Over the course of her treatment, they’d talk, and Kvistad would pepper him with questions about medicine.
She recalls one appointment in particular.
“He told me, ‘You should go to med school,’” she said. “Honestly, I thought he was joking. I was like, ‘He’s not talking about me. I’m not smart enough for that.’”
That encouragement kicked things into motion for Kvistad. She decided she’d try college, study biology and see how she liked it, then think about medical school.
It turned out that Kvistad was more than smart enough. In December, she graduated cum laude from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a BA in philosophy and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College. She has also completed premed studies and, in November, started working as an EMT while going through the lengthy process of applying to medical school. She hopes to use her lived experience and education to help others.
Growing up in a military family, she’d moved frequently and lived everywhere from Rhode Island to Alaska to Seattle, where she lived on the edge of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe of Kitsap County, giving Kvistad a unique and rich experience learning Native history, often from tribe elders, as well as traditional recipes.
Halfway through middle school, her family relocated to a small town in Illinois. The cultural contrast between it and Seattle was stark.
“It was actually a good experience because it showed me the different viewpoints that people have,” Kvistad said.
She decided on attending UMSL, drawn to its urban location, Honors College and perfect distance from her family – neither too close nor too far. However, applying and attending school as a first-generation student presented challenges.
“I didn’t know that you were supposed to study for the ACT, for example,” she said. “I went into it blind like, ‘OK, this is just testing our aptitude,’ which looking back on is kind of funny to me.
“I found things out along the way – from people that were a step ahead of me – simple things like when to buy books or how often you can see your family and also juggle a full course load. There were a lot of things that most people who are coming from a multi-generational family knew, and I was figuring out. Like, ‘Maybe I can’t work 30 hours a week and take 16 credit hours.’”
Living on campus her first year encouraged Kvistad to get involved. She enjoyed workout classes at the Recreation and Wellness Center, participated in Honors College activities and joined clubs such as the Pre-Med Society.
Partway through freshman year, she began working with Chemistry Professor James Bashkin, researching chemical compounds that could potentially be used to treat HPV.
“I wanted to do something that was related to medicine,” she said. “I think it’s a really important area of research because it’s a topic that a lot of people don’t want to talk about. Sometimes it gets neglected, especially in areas that don’t have very good health care, so finding a drug that could treat the disease after somebody contracts it spoke to me.”
That research position was one of four jobs that Kvistad held while taking classes. She worked for the Office of Residential Life and Housing, as a peer mentor and as a supplemental instructor. The last remained a favorite, along with her research position, throughout school.
Kvistad started because she loved learning about biology. Her first semester she worked for Assistant Teaching Professor of Biology Chris Wolin, who became a mentor for Kvistad.
She says the experience of being an SI shaped her personality, helping her be less shy and feel confident talking in front of a crowd. But the biggest benefit has been the opportunity to help others.
“I really like helping people who basically are like me, who maybe don’t have anybody to go home and ask questions to,” she said. “I like seeing the light bulb turn on when people understand a concept, especially for a biology class that a lot of people view as intimidating or challenging. I like helping people work through that and showing them, ‘Hey, you can do this, too, even if you don’t think that you have the background,’ because that’s how I felt when I initially came to school.”
Despite her continued interest in biology and medicine, Kvistad started wondering if she was taking as comprehensive an approach to her studies as she should be. She wandered into advising and asked their advice.
Next thing she knew, Kvistad was sitting at a seminar on Plato taught by Professor Jon McGinnis. He went around the room asking all the students why they were there.
“I told the professor, ‘I actually don’t know why I’m here,’” she said. “‘I guess the first question I need answered is what is philosophy?’ He thought that was funny. He told me he’s still trying to figure that out.
“I soon realized that that was the class that I was looking forward to going to. The conversations that we had in that class – we asked questions that I think a lot of people would be hesitant to talk about, important issues that some might think are too sensitive, or they might be afraid of starting a fight. I like that. In philosophy, it’s OK to talk about those things.”
Kvistad enjoyed studying philosophy so much that she switched her major. She points out that being a superior doctor involves building human connections, and philosophy has helped her in that regard.
“It made me learn how to think in new patterns,” she said. “It made me more critical when learning about new things – I had more of a drive to understand why something is occurring.”
While Kvistad goes through the process of applying to medical school, she’ll be working as an EMT. She’d earned her license last year and ramped up efforts to get hired during the pandemic, feeling a moral obligation to help out however she could.
In her mind, the practice balances the humanities and the sciences, combining personal, patient encounters with physiology. She’s been enjoying the patient interactions, and some of her favorite moments come during calls where she can be a comforting figure.
But ultimately, for Kvistad, the experience of being an EMT and helping others is personal.
“I’m glad in a way that I got my foot burned when I was in high school because that’s what showed me that I had a curiosity about these things,” she said. “Actually, I’ve wanted to be an EMT for a while. When I was a kid – my brother passed away – I remember when the EMTs showed up, I thought, ‘I want to be like them. I want to help people when they need it.’ So I finally made that happen.”
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