No one can ever accuse Danielle Eames, who recently completed her first year at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, of following a well-traveled path to medicine. No, she wasn’t an honor student who headed to college right after high school to bone up on the sciences so medical school would be a realistic pursuit.
Instead, for five years after graduating in the top 10 percent of her high school class, she worked at a pizza place, bars, and a Sonic Drive-In, roller skating her way to decent tips after dropping off burgers and slushies with a twirl. “I really enjoyed the people I met there,” said Eames ('18 BS Biology).
When she saved up enough money to go to a community college in her hometown of Independence, Missouri (yes, that’s where President Harry Truman also grew up), she took the part-time courses that would bring her an associate’s degree in art.
No, you won’t find many medical school students with Danielle Eames’ background. True, when she was a child she said she wanted to be a doctor after watching surgeries performed on the Discovery Channel and reading from The Encyclopedia of the Human Body that her father kept around the house. But she concluded that financially it wasn’t feasible for her to pursue the years of academics that make a career as a physician possible. The economy was then crashing during the Great Recession so she said she wasn’t sure about taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to pay for education.
The daughter of a trucker who stopped driving the big rigs across the country so he could help his wife raise two girls, Eames came to Southern Nevada a little over a decade ago after a friend told her the money was better in Vegas than Independence. Her mother, who worked at a tree farm and nursery, wasn’t as supportive of the move as her father. “My dad had been in the Navy traversing the world on a ship so he was more into adventure.”
A new leaf
“I piled my Nissan Altima full of my belongings and my cat and drove out to Vegas,” said Eames, whose dad preached self-reliance and taught her to change a tire and a car’s oil, as well as how to unclog the drain in a sink. “My dad never hired a handyman around the house and he taught me a lot. The decision to move to Las Vegas came during a time in my life where I just felt stagnant. The advisors at the community college there had no real guidance for me, and I had a friend out here. She was making good money and I figured, if I had more money, I could cover the cost of a bachelor’s degree.”
It wasn’t long before she had a job at a gaming bar as a server. And with that money she started taking courses at the CSN and then at UNLV.
More pragmatic as she grew older, Eames came to realize the sciences, which she enjoyed in high school, might bring her a satisfying career more quickly than the still lifes she loves to paint.
While she was taking courses at CSN, Eames says she “spent a lot of time dwelling on what I really wanted for my future. And what I wanted was to learn more about biology. I looked up the degree programs at UNLV.”
At UNLV, she met with School of Life Sciences advisers. She told them about her journey through life, how she had long thought about becoming a doctor, but figured “that was a far-fetched fantasy, partly because I was 27 years old and partly because I lacked confidence in my abilities.”
In what she says was a pivotal meeting with an adviser, Eames said she was assured “that becoming a doctor was not an outdated childhood fantasy, and I was not too old for such an ambitious endeavor. Life is funny, how cornerstone moments come by serendipity.”
Journey to Peru
During her pre-med years, a friend mentioned to Eames that his physician dad often took pre-med students with him when he went to Peru to provide medical help.
“Long story short, I went to Peru in December 2015 and again in May 2016.”
There, her interest in medicine grew stronger, as she did rounds in an emergency department, in infectious disease, OB/GYN, and surgery.
“I saw patients in their 40s who’d never before seen a doctor,” she said.
When she was 32, Eames began medical school with a partial scholarship and, for the first time in her academic career, she took out loans rather than paying for classes out of her own pocket.
“UNLV believed in me when I started school there at the age of 27 and the school of medicine believed in me at 32. I’ll never forget that.”
Eames also said she’ll never forget the beauty of her early life, which smacks of a more urbanized, small-town version of The Waltons, TV’s iconic country family hit.
“My sister, our cousins, and I spent most of our time outside of school at our grandparents’ house, which, conveniently, was on the other side of the playground behind our elementary school. Grandpa would walk with us to school, or if the weather was bad, he would drive us. And then we would all trickle back to their house after school. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything in the whole world. We played outside on the swing set, climbed the tree out back, or would venture across the field to the playground at the elementary school. In the fortunate event of a snow day, Grandma and Grandpa would build igloos or snowmen with us.”
It was from her grandfather that Eames says her love of art grew.
“He had a little shop in the basement where he would do woodworking. He built bunk beds for all of the grandkids, and we all had a toy chest/bookshelf with our names inscribed on them. He also made little wooden figures of sports players and, with meticulous detail, would paint on their uniforms. I definitely got my artistic talents from him.”
Today, Eames continues to paint when she’s not studying. “I like the different detail and focus of it. And it comes with a reward. You’ve created something.”
Being part of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine’s training of physicians still seems a little wonderfully unreal, Eames said. She adds, however, that the past year hasn’t been easy.
“My experience over the last year, especially the last semester with everything being entirely virtual, has really upended my lifestyle. It’s really taken a toll on me. In the past, after a demanding week of classes and extracurriculars, I would take an evening to just sit at home, relishing in the solitude. Maybe watch a movie or paint. But now that I do literally everything alone at home, my escape is to be with people. I do have friends nearby, and they help me to turn the brain off for a bit, laugh, and just have some semblance of human connection. Being alone, what COVID-19 caused, is not for me.”
What she wants to always remain part of her is the feeling she experienced in Peru.
“After a long day in the hospital clinic, the physician took me along for a home visit. The doctor and I were welcomed inside where I met a cheerful but weathered old man, delighted to have a new face in his home. He suffered from diabetes, which had been undiagnosed for years, leading to ulcers on his feet and leaving him mostly bedridden,” she said.
“His whole family was present as I kneeled near the bedside to help the doctor gently clean and redress the sores. At this moment, any doubts I may have had about pursuing a career in medicine vanished. The doctor brought relief to the patient and reassurance to the family. He had earned their trust through his compassionate care, and I want to heal people as this doctor did.”