The Hardest Thing

“We just never knew who we would come home to. She would either be awake and be present, or you might come home to a monster.”

Growing up in tiny Albany, Ore., Margo Roemeling had plenty of reasons to fail. She was one of five children living in poverty with their single mother who abused drugs and alcohol. When Margo hit age 10, her mom got into Methamphetamine. That’s when everything began spiraling out of control.

She became abusive – both physically and emotionally. Eventually, she simply was unavailable to her children who needed her.

“She’d either be awake for 48 hours at a time, kind of manic and angry,” Margo recalls, “or she would be passed out in her room for a few days at a time.”

It was around then that Margo and her older sister (Margo is the second oldest) took their mother’s abandoned responsibilities into their own hands. They took care of their younger siblings the best they could. They dressed them for school. Made their lunches. They even forged parental signatures on the various school forms that required them. They really didn’t have a choice.

Margo and her sister kept on like that as long as they could. Then, life got harder.

“When I was about 17, things got so bad with the physical abuse and everything,” Margo says. “We decided as a group that we wanted to move out and go live with my dad in Salem. That was a really tough decision.”

Though their mom was ill with addiction, she was still their mom. And every time they’d thought about leaving, she’d threaten suicide, frightening them to postpone their decision time and time again.

But this time was different. When they said they were leaving, their mother threatened to kill herself. The kids had had enough. They had to get out of there. (None of Margo’s siblings wanted the attention for this story; Margo is the only one who feels strongly about sharing her experience.)

Since Margo was on the cusp of college-age, she had to make a decision. What would she do with her life? “I think we were all scared of turning into her,” Margo says.

So, for Margo, not turning into her mother meant doing the hardest thing she could do, and to do it the best – learn biochemistry and biophysics.

She started there.

Margo went off to college at Oregon Health and Science University and supported herself by working four jobs. Most students can hardly hold one job in their college years, yet Margo showed that anything was possible.

Her tremendous work ethic is shadowed by one other quality: her heart.

While working those four jobs in college, she was putting herself through school. But she also was helping her mother financially as much as she could. After all, it was still her mom.

“I wish I had the insight back then that it was all going to be OK. I wish I could spare myself all that pain and anguish. To know that with time, support and perseverance, anything is really possible.”

Back-and-forth, Margo would wrestle with the internal struggle on helping her mother despite all the pain she’d caused. About halfway through undergrad, Margo realized where her heart was. She wanted to become a doctor.

But she still harbored doubt and guilt from her past. “I’d tell myself, ‘You’ll never be able to make it to med school.’ If you hear enough bad things about yourself, you start to believe them.”

Margo kept pushing through, and slowly, that doubting voice inside her head began to quiet down. Today, Margo is 26 and a year away from finishing med school. “The day I got into med school was the happiest day I can remember. I did it.”

Margo met Shira Einstein just three years ago when the pair started medical school. From that moment, the two quickly realized they were each other’s “person.”

“When I first met Margo, my first impression was that she was very confident, yet approachable and sweet,” Shira recalls. “Margo is my person. She is the reason that I’m still in medical school…. When something horrible happens–a patient passes away, I have a negative interaction with someone, or just a hard day—Margo is the person I call. When I have good news—when I deliver a baby, when I need to celebrate—she’s the one I want to share with.”

Not only did Margo find an unbreakable friendship in med school, but she also found confidence in herself. Simply by setting out to do the hardest thing, Margo climbed a mountain most would not dream of scaling. After all, the hardest thing is supposed to be, well, hard.

Having come this far, she’s starting to believe in herself. “I have a wonderful support system. Shira, my best friend, keeps my head above water. She and my siblings, who are my whole world, help me feel more confident. The hardest thing is already behind me.”

“I think what is most important is letting people know they can do it, too,” Margo says. “You can come out of the worst situation and you can do it, too. You can do it well. I wish I had the insight back then that it was all going to be OK. I wish I could spare myself all that pain and anguish. To know that with time, support and perseverance, anything is really possible. I wish I could go back in time and tell my 10-year-old self that. You gotta keep going and take it one step at a time. A lot of people stop before they try because they think it’s not going to happen. I’m very lucky that I have my siblings and Shira to help me.”

“Having that experience with someone who has an addiction or abuse or coming from a poor family, it makes such a difference. You have been there and you know what that feels like.”

And step by step, Margo is stomping on her doubts. She’s not only proving to others that anything is possible, she’s proving it to herself. She plans on becoming an emergency technician because she likes the variability and the people of the job.

“You never know what your day is going to look like,” Margo says. “It can turn in a second. I also like the people. I think in the ER, you get to see the scariest day of someone’s life or the best day of someone’s life.”

But, as Margo has shown, the only thing more inspiring than her drive is her heart. Margo’s been such an inspiration, in fact, that the American Medical Association decided to highlight her story in their latest video series.

“What impresses me the most about Margo is her fierce loyalty towards her family and friends, Shira says. “She is someone that will drop everything to be there for someone she loves.”

And it’s been hard for Margo to balance her compassionate heart with her own well-being. Her mother is now clean, but she’s in a homeless shelter just an hour from her Portland apartment. Margo brought her mom there after she was mugged and was treated poorly in the emergency room. “It was hard to watch,” she says. Then, she felt bad about bringing her mom to a homeless shelter while she had a nice apartment.

Her contrasting emotions about the whole situation bring her guilt, but Shira has helped remind Margo that she needs to keep those boundaries and make herself a priority. It’s overwhelming to balance it all, but Margo makes it through, day by day.

“Having that experience with someone who has an addiction or abuse or coming from a poor family, it makes such a difference,” Margo says. “You have been there and you know what that feels like. People brush users off by saying they have a moral failing. It’s easy for them to chalk it up to that. And when you’ve been there and see how out of control that person is, I don’t feel like those people are a nuisance and a burden. It’s not a moral failing, you know, it’s a disease. It gives me a lot of perspective and empathy. I think I’ll be a better physician for it in the long-run.”

Margo was made for this.

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