ALTON Ruth Kvistad hadn’t planned on more school. An EMT with Alton Memorial Hospital’s EMS team since November 2020, Kvistad has even loftier goals. Neither of her parents had college degrees, and her high school wasn’t pushing students to apply.

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Then, her senior year, Kvistad was cleaning out fryers as part of a fundraiser for a local organization. One of her co-volunteers accidentally opened the valve at the bottom of a fryer, and a mix of boiling water, soap, and remnant oil gushed onto Kvistad’s foot, burning her badly.

Through the intensive care needed to heal her injury, she ended up in the office of Dr. John Felder at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Over the course of her treatment, they would talk, and Kvistad would pepper him with questions about medicine.

She recalls one appointment in particular.“He told me, ‘You should go to med school,’ ” she said. “Honestly, I thought he was joking. I was like, ‘He’s not talking about me. I’m not smart enough for that.” That encouragement kicked things into motion for Kvistad. She decided she would try college, study biology and see how she liked it, then think about medical school.

It turned out that Kvistad was more than smart enough. In December, she graduated cum laude from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a BA in philosophy and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College. She has also completed pre-med studies and, in November, started working as an EMT while going through the lengthy process of applying to medical school. That has paid off as she has been accepted into the MD/JD (Juris Doctor) program at Southern Illinois University.

Growing up in a military family, Kvistad moved frequently and lived everywhere from Rhode Island to Alaska to Seattle. Halfway through middle school, her family relocated to New Baden, Ill. After graduating from Trenton Wesclin High School in 2017, Ruth decided on attending the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Attending school as a first-generation student presented challenges.

“I didn’t know that you were supposed to study for the ACT, for example,” she said. “I went into it blind like, ‘OK, this is just testing our aptitude,’ which looking back on is kind of funny to me.”

Despite her continued interest in biology and medicine, Kvistad started wondering if she was taking as comprehensive an approach to her studies as she should be. She wandered into advising and asked for their advice.

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The next thing she knew, Kvistad was sitting in a philosophy seminar where the professor went around the room asking all the students why they were there.

“I told the professor, ‘I actually don’t know why I’m here,’” Kvistad said. “‘I guess the first question I need to be answered is ‘what is philosophy?’ He thought that was funny. He told me he’s still trying to figure that out.”

Kvistad enjoyed studying philosophy so much that she switched her major. She points out that being a superior doctor involves building human connections, and philosophy has helped her in that regard.

“It made me learn how to think in new patterns,” she said. “It made me more critical when learning about new things – I had more of a drive to understand why something is occurring.”

An MD/Juris Doctor program combines the study of medicine with the legal field. She hopes to go into health care policy once her degrees are completed.

In the meantime, she continues as an EMT at AMH. She earned her license last year at Southwestern Illinois College and ramped up efforts to get hired during the pandemic, feeling a moral obligation to help out however she could.

“Ruth has been with the AMH EMS for a short time, and during this time Ruth has excelled in her position,” said Jason Bowman, manager of EMS at AMH. “I wish Ruth the best of luck in medical school.”

For Kvistad, the experience of being an EMT and helping others is personal.

“I’m glad in a way that I got my foot burned when I was in high school because that’s what showed me that I had a curiosity about these things,” she said.

“Actually, I’ve wanted to be an EMT for a while. My older brother struggled with a severe mental illness. Unfortunately, he took his own life at the age of 14, when I was 6 years old. I understood what was happening and was very grateful for the first responders who showed up to my house. I will always have a feeling of gratitude toward them. They took over during the most painful and scary time of my family’s life. The impact that they left on me was great. When the opportunity presented itself, I knew I wanted to be there for others in the way that they were there for my family on that day.”

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