Ramblings on healthcare, medical education, and life with a spinal cord injury
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My Inspiration

Many people who know me also know that I have wanted to be a surgeon, or at least some type of physician, since I was a child.  I can’t say what first attracted me to it other than sheer fascination and curiosity, but I can say with definite certainty that it has always been my goal.  As soon as I was old enough, I obtained my EMT certification and became deeply ingrained in the local ambulance corps.  Before and after then, I was volunteering in hospitals and even shadowing doctors.  Every time I entered one of these situations, I was overwhelmed with excitement.  I knew that was where I belonged for the rest of my life.  But just after I was injured, although I knew I could complete medical school, I became very scared that surgery might be out of my reach forever.

After arriving at Mount Sinai, all of the attendings and residents made it clear to me that medical school certainly was not out of reach.  But I got differing opinions from people about surgery.  One friend that is currently a third-year surgical resident said that “all you need are your hands and the ability to move your head quickly throughout the surgical field.  Moving your legs isn’t necessary, since we usually are standing in the same place for hours anyway.”  I found this very encouraging, but still, who would really give someone in a wheelchair a shot at being a surgeon?  How would I get myself into position properly?  And how the heck would I get into an OR and maintain a sterile field?

In one of the rooms here at Sinai, they have inspirational stories taped onto the wall.  Many are about paraplegics and tetraplegics that remain very active after their injury: fishing, playing tennis and of course, the infamous Murderball quad-rugby players.  But one story on the wall particularly caught my eye.   It was that of Dr. Dimple Bhatt, a recent MD/PhD graduate from The School of Medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center.  He was injured prior to medical school, completed his entire medical education in a wheelchair, and is now in the first year of his residency in neurology and psychiatry at NY Presbyterian Weill Cornell.  Those statements alone do not do his story justice – he truly has not let the wheelchair alter who he is, or what he is capable of.  It’s worth reading his whole story.

I’ve been in contact with a number of doctors who have told me stories of paras and tetras that have graduated from medical school and gone on to various specialties.  Radiology seems to be popular, as it is challenging and does not require extreme dexterity.  Many of the primary care fields are also an option, as are fields such as neurology and countless others.

Step 1, complete medical school in wheelchair: check.

While in rehab, I had learned about standing wheelchairs.  They literally convert from a regular, sitting chair into a device that can stand a person completely upright.  I was ecstatic.  These were the devices that would allow me to function in an operating room should I remain in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.  Standing was no longer insurmountable.  But still, how would I ensure sterility in the OR?  Would I need a separate chair that I would just keep at the hospital?  And what would be likelihood of any residency program directors giving me a shot, despite whatever my board scores turn out to be?

Enter the story of Peter A. Galpin, MD.  A recent addition to the blog’s Inspirational Stories section, he was the first person to complete medical school and become a surgeon from a wheelchair.  And he did this in the 80′s, long before today’s more socially conscious climate.  Heck, he even did part of his general surgery residency right here at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Because he wanted to prove that he didn’t need any special accomodations, he had a wheelchair company custom build a standing chair for him.  Throughout residency and thereafter, he worked from his standing chair.  He has gone on to become chief of surgery at his hospital, and now he has his OR staff all sitting.  This story has a great photo.

Step 2, perform surgery from a wheelchair: check.

Since finding out about Dr. Galpin, I’ve since heard of several more inspiring stories.  He references the story of a Stanford Medical School grad who is entering surgery.  I have heard stories from people close to family members, and found more on the web.  Surgery is definitely not out of the question.  Far from it.  It’s a challenging pathway for even the able-bodied, but there’s no reason the added challenge of doing it from a wheelchair has to be impossible.

If they can do it, so can I.  And I will, regardless of whether or not I am still in a wheelchair come time for residency.  I thank Dr. Bhatt, Dr. Galpin and those who have gone before me for being such an inspiration to everybody.

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