Daughter's Birth Defect Led Him to Medical School

December 10, 2018 11:51 am David Mitchell

Chris Zeman planned to be a science teacher. He will eventually be a physician instead, but it took the 36-year-old medical student a while to find his path.

[headshot of Chris Zeman]

Zeman earned an undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in secondary education at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis. At the time, he was most interested in subjects such as botany.

"Being a doctor never crossed my mind," he said.

Zeman said a series of experiences changed his mind over time. He accepted a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship at Ripon, which obligated him to four years of active duty service after graduation.

"Four years turned into eight," Zeman said.

During a deployment in Iraq, Zeman knew other soldiers whose lives were saved by U.S. Army medics and physicians. That's when the thought of being a doctor did cross his mind.

"The care they received from the point of injury and all the way back to Germany and eventually San Antonio was just outstanding," he said. "I was thankful we had excellent, well-trained providers."

By the time Zeman left active duty in 2012, his desire to teach had waned. He took a job at Home Depot and was pondering the retailer's management track when another medical event altered his course again. His daughter Evie -- now a healthy 5-year-old -- was born with gastroschisis. She spent her first several weeks in the hospital, and multiple surgeries followed.

Zeman said interactions with health care professionals during his daughter's lengthy ordeal "spun me around 180 degrees." At 31, he went back to college to take the prerequisite courses he needed for medical school.

"The experience with my daughter's birth defect prompted me on this journey," he said. "The whole process was a gentle reminder that I could go to medical school and serve my community."

Zeman wasn't accepted to medical school on his first attempt, and he spent a gap year working in the outreach office of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Although initially disappointing, the brief detour proved to be fortuitous. It was during his time on Johnson's staff that Zeman learned of the Joseph Project, a faith-based training and support program in Milwaukee that helps people find full-time jobs. After being accepted to the Medical College of Wisconsin's new Central Wisconsin program, Zeman led an effort to bring the Joseph Project to Wausau.

"The dean did a great job of painting the picture for us," Zeman said. "She wanted us to be the most community-engaged campus in the nation. She wanted us to learn what health care means and what it can be beyond the walls of a clinic."

Launching the Joseph Project last year in Wausau was Zeman's community-based project. He partnered with a local faith-based nonprofit organization, a manufacturer, a taxi company and instructors from the original Milwaukee project.

Zeman said the Wausau program has produced 31 graduates in its first six sessions, and 28 have landed full-time jobs so far. Many of the participants, he said, are people who have at least one barrier to employment, such as substance abuse, criminal records or homelessness. Some also have transportation issues, so the program, through its taxi partner, provides transportation for the first 30 days after a graduate finds work.

"Hearing the stories our graduates come back with about how the program has impacted their lives has been amazing," he said.

Zeman's circuitous career path figures to become more stable. Now an Aspirus Scholar, he's guaranteed $150,000 in tuition assistance in return for a five-year commitment to work for Aspirus -- a nonprofit health system based in Wausau -- after he completes his training.