CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Dr. Elizabeth Spangler has been cleaning out her office for weeks but says she still has a way to go.
Papers, files and textbooks have a way of piling up over a 50-year career. Spangler is cleaning off her bookshelves, but the nine diplomas and certificates hanging on her back wall are untouched.
The simple gold frames are neatly arranged in a large grid pattern. Her West Virginia medical license hangs at the top of the arrangement. Spangler's medical school diploma hangs just below it.
There also is a license from the National Board of Medical Examiners, a membership certificate from the Alpha Kappa Mu medical honor society and a certificate from the American Board of Internal Medicine.
Though Spangler, Charleston Area Medical Center's vice president for medical affairs, will retire Jan. 11, she doesn't appear to be in a hurry to take those frames off the wall.
"The stuff on the wall is a story," she said. "It's a story of a lifetime of trying to achieve what I wanted to achieve."
It's a long story, and an impressive one that started in Glendale, Calif. By her senior year of high school, Spangler says knew she wanted to become a doctor. Her family was not very supportive.
"In those days, no one in my family went to college," she said.
There wasn't a lot of money to go around, and Spangler said her family didn't see her education as a good investment.
She said many people felt that way in the 1950s. Spending money on a girl's college tuition was often considered a waste since she soon would get married and quit work.
Spangler also could not get a loan to pay her tuition because banks at the time required signees to be at least 21 years old. She had to abandon her dreams of becoming a doctor but did not give up on education. She received a scholarship from Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Springfield, Mass., where she graduated at the top of her class in 1959.
She married her husband, Mike, in 1961, while he was in the Air Force. The couple decided to move to West Virginia, Mike's home state, when he left the military in 1962.
Spangler began working at Charleston Memorial Hospital as an operating room nurse but quickly was promoted to nursing instructor and then became head nurse for the operating room.
Hospital administrators then picked Spangler to be the supervisor of the hospital's new obstetrics department. The hospital wanted to begin offering on-site Caesarean sections, and needed a nurse with an operating room background to lead the unit.
After several years in that position, Spangler was promoted to director of Memorial Hospital's emergency department, where her dreams of becoming a doctor were revived.
She said at the time the hospital's emergency department employed a small group of doctors and they could not always be contacted when needed. Sometimes it was up to Spangler to make life-or-death decisions.
"I said, 'I've wanted to do this my whole life. Why don't I give it a try?' "
Becoming a doctor is never easy, but it would be especially difficult for Spangler. She had a young family and a demanding full-time job. Because she had only a diploma degree in nursing school, she would have to finish her bachelor's degree before applying to a medical school.
Spangler began taking undergraduate classes in 1968, picking up a few credits at a time while still working full-time at the hospital. It was a slow process. By 1982, Spangler still had not received enough credits to complete her bachelor's degree.
She thought time was running out on her dream. She said medical schools in those days wouldn't accept students in their late 30s or 40s. She was 40, but decided to apply anyway, even without her bachelor's degree.
The application process did not go well at first. During one of her interviews, an administrator cast doubt on her abilities to manage medical school and a family.
"He said, 'Don't you know you can't teach old dogs new tricks?' "
Spangler told him that after working full-time, raising a family and taking undergraduate classes in her free time and maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, medical school would be a welcome relief.
"I said, 'Lord, that'd be a vacation.' "
Although Spangler was kept in the medical school's applicant pool, she was not immediately accepted.
Marshall University's medical school was interested in Spangler, however. She said the school recognized her large skill set from years as a hospital nurse and was impressed by her work ethic. In a meeting with the school's dean, Spangler said he didn't make any jokes about old dogs and new tricks.
"He said, 'How have you done all this and kept a 4.0 average?' "