'The epitome of grit': Joplin mom overcomes adversity to graduate from KCU

May 3—Joplin mom Alice Pulsipher said her journey to medical school has been a difficult one, but after Sunday's commencement for the KCU Joplin class of 2024, she will be Dr. Alice Pulsipher, internal medicine specialist and a resident in the Freeman Internal Medicine Residency Program.

"Here's what's amazing about Alice," said Dr. Jo Enscoe, assistant vice provost for student services at KCU's Joplin campus. "She is kind, she is compassionate and she is a person that, even when she has gone through so much difficulty in her life, has never lost her shine. She kept shining and helping others even when she was going through turbulent times. And she made it through."

Enscoe said it's hard for her to comprehend the challenges Pulsipher, her one son and three daughters have overcome.

"Seriously girl, you are the epitome of grit," Enscoe told Pulsipher in the KCU cafeteria on Wednesday. "That's what makes you so special. So many people can go through difficulties and then they become dark or harsh. She never lost her shine. She gets a better sense of humor as she goes on. She's a light of hope for so many students because they've seen her do it after everything she's been through, so now they know they can do it."

Child mom

Pulsipher (no relation to former Mercy Hospital Joplin CEO Gary Pulsipher) sat down Wednesday with her three daughters — Harley, 9; Riley, 11; and Dakota, 12. Her son, Jason, 16, was at school and couldn't attend.

Among her challenges:

—Homelessness while becoming a mother at the age of 16.

—Thyroid cancer at the age of 23.

—The death of her second husband in a vehicle crash in Joplin in January 2022.

Haley Reardon, KCU spokeswoman, said completing medical school under ideal circumstances is hard.

"Doing so while overcoming incredible adversity is even more difficult," Reardon said. "With the support of her classmates and the Joplin community — and her inspiring tenacity — Alice persevered."

Pulsipher grew up in Eagar, Arizona, near the New Mexico border about four hours east of Phoenix, and it was as a teen in a beautiful mountain town that her challenges began.

"I got pregnant when I was 15 and I had Jason when I was 16," Pulsipher said. She said she ended up homeless while a teenager and "living in this little camper trailer that someone let us live in on someone's random piece of land."

Path to medical school

She took classes to earn her certified nursing assistant certification before she entered college, and she married the father of her son while still in high school. But they soon figured out they weren't meant to be together.

"So I was married and divorced before I graduated high school," Pulsipher said. "It was wild. I think about that now and I think, 'Wow!' I think about my 16-year-old, and it just blows my mind to think about that."

Pulsipher said she moved to another town in Arizona and met her second husband, Ryan Pulsipher, and married him at age 19. The couple had their three girls and moved to Elko, Nevada, where she became an X-ray technician.

The couple moved back to Arizona where her husband worked as an electrician for a mining company.

Alice Pulsipher took classes to learn to operate MRI machines. During one class, she volunteered to be the patient so students could learn neck imaging. The teacher said her thyroid looked odd so she got it checked out, learning that she had thyroid cancer at age 23.

"I went through the treatment and had my thyroid removed and had radioactive iodine therapy," Pulsipher said. "About the same time I was finishing a bachelor's degree in advanced radiological sciences and I had always wanted to be a doctor. During my childhood I had seven broken arms between the ages of five and 12. I had this orthopedic surgeon that took care of me and I adored her. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up, but people like me don't go to medical school."

She started looking at medical schools, applying to 50 and receiving eight acceptance letters. As she interviewed with options including Ohio, Idaho and Arizona, KCU became her favorite candidate. She interviewed at KCU's Kansas City campus and learned she had been accepted to the Joplin campus.

"I had never heard anything about Joplin except for the tornado," Pulsipher said. "But the day I got the acceptance letter, my kids and I were watching the 'Dumbo' movie and in the opening sequence they show Joplin. I said, 'This is a sign, we've got to go.' It was so bizarre. So here we are, in Joplin, Missouri."

Tragedy in Joplin

In 2019, she and her son drove a U-Haul truck from Arizona to Jasper where they moved into a home large enough for a wife, husband, four kids and her husband's grandparents, who were living with them at the time. That first year in medical school didn't go smoothly.

"I was working at Mercy Carthage Hospital and Mercy Joplin Hospital as an X-ray and CT Tech," Pulsipher said. "Medical school is not meant for people to have jobs, so I failed my first year and I had to repeat. So I focused everything on school and my kids and got rid of the job. The kids have pretty good senses of humor. I started again and I honored my next year, so to go from failing to honoring — one extreme to the other — that was crazy. I got the award for being the highest ranked student in the honors society, which blew my mind."

Tragedy creeped back into Pulsipher's life when Ryan's grandfather died of a stroke late in 2021. Then in January 2022, Ryan was killed in a vehicle crash in Joplin, upending everything the family had worked for.

"I don't know how I stayed in school," she said. "I had people keeping me in school. I had my best friend, Collin, who's a medical student, and his wife, Chloe, who teaches at my kids' school. They took us into their little tiny house and kept us alive for the immediate couple of months there. I sold my house in Jasper. I couldn't go back home, it was too much, too emotional. They lived a couple of blocks from campus here. And they had this little tiny house and it was just him and his wife, and all of a sudden they add five people to their little tiny house. We were crammed in there. But I think that's what we needed at the time was that closeness."

Recovery and graduation

Alice said her friends were helpful with her children and KCU was "incredibly accommodating."

"Dr. Enscoe, she talked me through a lot of things, she was a really awesome sounding board," Pulsipher said. "The school offers free counseling, which I used a lot and I still use a lot. They let me take extra time on tests. Or if I needed more time to study, they would let me do so. They really did what I needed to do so I could stay in school and still pass. I had my kids' friends and families from school, they really helped a lot. My sister moved from Arizona to help me. I had a lot of support come out of the woodwork to help me stay in."

In March, she got a letter saying she had been matched with the Freeman Internal Medicine Residency Program and would be staying in Joplin.

"That is the best scenario I could have asked for," she said. "I didn't want to uproot my kids. We have created a home here, we have support here, we're here to stay. Being able to actually make that happen, I couldn't have asked for a better outcome."

Alice said staying here also will help her children heal after all they've been through.

"They're hurt and they've been hurt, and that's the last thing I want is for them to be hurt," she said. "And I want to fix them, and I can't fix everything, unfortunately. But they've been really good at helping me. Sometimes I wonder who the parent is. They definitely help me."