by Joanne Morici

Printed in FAMILY CIRCLE on February 26, 1985.

She spent four years in reform school, was a 16-year-old illiterate, an unwed mother at 20. Now, at 35, Dr. Mary Groda-Lewis is a gutsy woman who beat the odds.


CAPTION: The happy graduate celebrates with family: sister-in-law Judy Berkowitz, nieces Susan and Laurie, husband David, and proud in-laws Milton and Yeta Lewis.

CAPTION: Mary on daily rounds with Dr. W. Clare Reesey.

CAPTION: Sharing a quiet moment with her husband.


On May 24, 1984, Mary Groda-Lewis made her way up to the podium, where the dean of Albany Medical School (New York) waited to hand her a diploma. Mary tried to let nothing overshadow the pride she felt at that moment, but as she stood on the stage in front of her fellow graduates, memories of her troubled past came flooding back.

She recalled standing in the classroom "dummy corner," her long brown hair hiding the pain in her eyes, her face hot with embarrassment. Many times, Mary had left the classroom in tears, vowing never to return. But her parents insisted, "You must get an education; you have to go back."

At 13, Mary couldn't stand it anymore. She stopped going to school altogether. Instead, she spent her days with other "outcasts"--drinking, smoking, committing petty crimes. Caught for truancy and possession of alcohol, she was sent away to reform school. For two long years, experts tried to "rehabilitate" the unruly youngster, but the transformation never materialized. Fifteen months after her release, Mary was arrested again--this time, for auto theft. Committed to the juvenile correctional facility in Salem, Oregon, Mary begged her parents, "Please, get me out of here!" But there was nothing they could do--their daughter had broken the law, and this was her punishment.

The words, "Congratulations, Doctor," brought Mary back out of her reverie. Blinking back tears, she murmured, "Thank you, God," and finally buried the ghosts of her past.

Later, standing with her family outside the auditorium, Mary admitted, "Throughout medical school, I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, but we've made a mistake. You don't belong here.'" Although she's no longer skinny, and her brown hair is now short and threaded with gray, you can still see traces of the mischievous youngster in her round, youthful face. She's embarrassed by all the attention she's receiving, and doesn't think there's anything remarkable about her accomplishments. But few could have triumphed over such a tormented and troubled past the way Mary has.

As the second child of seven born to Christine and Fennie Groda, Mary barely remembers when her family was not struggling to pay the bills.

"But," she says, "we never felt poor--everyone we knew was struggling the same way we were." Fennie, a retired Air Force sergeant, lost his restaurant business in 1953, and although Christine, a nurse, could usually find work, her salary was never enough to support a family of nine.

"When I was 6, we became migrant workers, moving from farm to farm throughout the state of Texas," Mary says. She admits that the work was hard, "but we worked together as a family. We always had each other--none of us ever lacked for love."

Her trouble, Mary contends, began when she was enrolled in a regular school and could no longer play hooky. Although the problem would not be diagnosed for many years, Mary had dyslexia, which made reading and writing impossible for her.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to learn," she explains. "I simply couldn't."

The cycle of frustration and humiliation remained largely unbroken until the family moved to Del Rio, Texas. Then 10, Mary was so desperate to do anything that would keep her out of school, she paid a neighborhood friend to break her middle finger. Christine brought her daughter to Dr. Hi Newby. The kindly old doctor did more than treat Mary's finger--he gave her a respite from the classes she hated so much, by prescribing daily finger soakings in his office for several hours. The treatment had no medicinal benefit, but it kept the young girl occupied and out of trouble. The days spent in Dr. Newby's office had a lasting impression on Mary.

"Right then, I knew I wanted to be a family doctor, just like Dr. Newby."

Mary's happiness was short-lived. In 1961, the family moved again, this time to Portland, Oregon.

"All of us kids were devastated by the move," says Mary. "We weren't 'city folk.' Our appearance, manners, everything screamed backwoods-type people. We were totally unacceptable to our neighbors, and became scapegoats at school. My brothers and sisters compensated by studying harder and earning 'A's. But since I could barely write my name, much less get 'A's, I became a 'toughie.'" Adopting an insolent attitude, Mary spent her days smoking, drinking, and committing petty crimes.

Reform school did little to rectify Mary's feelings of worthlessness.

"It was very clear to me, right from the beginning," Mary says bitterly, "that I was a 'problem' that had to be 'dealt with.'" She would have continued on this way, hurting herself and others, had it not been for counselor Karen Barr.

"For the first time in there, someone listened to me," says Mary, "and cared about how I was feeling." Karen got Mary into the federally sponsored Upward Bound program, an experimental tutorial designed for troublesome youngsters from low-income families. For four months, Mary lived in a dormitory at the University of Oregon, working one-on-one with teachers. The 16-hour-a-day sessions paid off in more ways than one.

"The teachers diagnosed my dyslexia," says Mary. "For the first time in 10 years, I felt the cloud of confusion and ignorance that I'd been living in start to lift."

Her progress was startling. In four months, Mary's reading ability advanced from a first- to eighth-grade level. She was even flown to Washington D.C., to receive a commendation from President Lyndon Johnson for her success in the program. But when reporters asked what advice Mary, then 16, could pass on to other juvenile offenders, she snapped back, "Don't get caught."

"I was bitter and angry," Mary says. "Only a few months before, these same people had locked me up, telling me I was worthless. Now they were giving me an award. Big deal. I could've spent my life being angry, but Karen Barr helped to me see how my anger and hate were only hurting me. I learned to channel that anger into something positive."

Since Mary was slated to return to the reformatory when the program ended, Karen Barr arranged for her to stay at the university on the condition she earn her high-school equivalency diploma. The once-reluctant student studied like crazy, and in three months passed the exam.

"I was finally on my own," says Mary. Now she could move into her own apartment. But, as an insecure 17-year-old, she admits that she yearned to "love and be loved."

Just three months later, Mary got pregnant.

"My parents were upset, of course," she says, "but they stood by me."

Nine months after Iris Christine was born, Mary became pregnant again. This time, her parents were furious. Yet, despite their disapproval, they took her in during the last month of her pregnancy. Mary's blood pressure had become alarmingly high, her body bloated and heavy from the excess fluid she retained. On February 5, two days after Christopher was born, Mary had five cardiac arrests, several seizures, and a stroke.

For eight months, she remained in the hospital. When she was discharged, she weighed only 82 pounds, compared with the 160 when she arrived, and could barely walk without clutching the walls. The stroke had left other scars. Her mind was a blank--she couldn't read, write, or talk. She'd have to start all over again.

"I just couldn't believe it," Mary says, her voice filled with exasperation. "I felt like someone was out to get me." But Mary's family wouldn't allow her to wallow in self-pity.

"You did it once," Christine Groda told her daughter. "You can do it again."

"They pulled me through," says Mary. "Every day, my dad would help me do exercises to strengthen my hands. My brothers and sisters took turns reading to me, teaching me math, spelling, science." It took nearly three years, but spunky Mary did regain all her mental and motor capabilities.

Once she could manage on her own, Mary moved out of her parents' house.

"I needed to get reacquainted with my kids and start a life for us together as a family." She also decided that if she were to make a better life for them, she'd have to go back to school.

"I still wanted to be a doctor--and I figured it was now or never." Armed with only her determination, Mary was able to secure financial aid and a bank loan to help with her tuition. She started school in September, 1972.

At Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon, Mary met her future husband, David Lewis, a journalism student. They were married in September of 1978.

Shortly afterward, David got a job on a Westchester, New York, newspaper. Mary transferred to Herbert H. Lehman College, and the family moved to a small apartment. She finished her undergraduate degree in a year, finishing in the top 10 percent of the class. Mary applied to 15 medical schools and was accepted by Albany Medical College.

Three years later, the woman who'd been told she "would never amount to anything" graduated with honors. She received four awards, among them the Alumni Association Medal and the Neil Hellman prize, awarded to the student who exhibits "outstanding sensitivity to humanistic values."

When it came time to choose her specialty, Mary had no doubts.

"I knew I wanted to be a regular, old-fashioned family doctor," she says emphatically. She accepted a residency at Northside Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio.

"Northside's Family Practices Clinic program fit perfectly with my philosophy of treating the whole patient--not just the illness," Mary explains.

"I also feel a special bond with these people. I know what it's like to feel lonely, afraid, and insecure. When I ask patients how they're feeling, I don't just mean physically, 'where-does-it-hurt?' kind of stuff; I mean feeling--'Are you bored, depressed, sad, lonely?'"

The days are exhausting for Mary, up at dawn at 6 a.m. to make hospital rounds by 7, then clinic work, seminars, and more studying at night. But her enthusiasm for the profession is exhilarating and energizing. Her children, Iris, now 16, and Christopher, 15, are adjusting to their new home, making new friends.

"It's hard for them," Mary concedes, "especially now that they're teenagers, to start making friends all over again. But they've got a lot of stamina, and I'm sure they'll do OK."

David is looking for work on one of the local newspapers.

"We've been in much tougher spots than this," he says. "I know we'll pull through."

"There's nothing you can't accomplish if you put your mind to it," Mary announces with conviction, "and if anyone can say that, I can."

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