Real Life Good Doctors
Meet Real Doctors Who’ve Achieved Career Success Despite Considerable Health Limitations
By Jana Soeldner Danger
The Good Doctor, ABC’s groundbreaking medical drama series, features a lead character named Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome who faces skepticism and prejudices of the hospital’s staff. He must work harder than ever to navigate his environment and relationships to prove that his extraordinary medical gifts will save lives. And although Dr. Shaun Murphy is a fiction role played by British actor Freddie Highmore, there are real life doctors with disabilities who really do overcome challenges, bringing a different kind of understanding to their professions. International Opulence interviewed several disabled doctors around the world whose stories are both remarkable and inspiring.
Couldn’t Be a Candy Striper
Kim Sherrill always wanted to be a doctor. But as a teenager, she was told she couldn’t even be a candy striper. At eight months old, polio paralyzed her left arm and caused significant weakness in her right. “The volunteer program at the hospital said, ‘no, we don’t want you,’” Sherrill said.
Undaunted, she inquired about attending four different medical schools. The first told her bluntly she would never make it through the program. But the University of Texas in Galveston was different and accepted Sherrill’s application. She finished successfully and specialized in psychiatry, partly because of her experiences with an alcoholic father and her involvement with Alateen. “I was around people who were changing emotionally, and I saw what a difference I could make,” she said.
Doctors with disabilities can offer a different perspective to medicine, she said. “We bring diversity and sensitivity that can be eye-opening. We’re on the fringe, but we’re also on the frontier, exploring new techniques and new approaches. Maybe my story will encourage one-armed people to consider medical school who might not try otherwise.”
Better Experience for Kids
Spina bifida spared Dr. Paige Church, a pediatrician in Sunnybrook, CA, some of the mobility difficulties it often causes. She does, however, suffer from severe bladder and bowel incontinence. To avoid sudden emergencies while with patients, she must severely limit consuming food or drink. Her many surgeries as a child were a major part of her decision to become a pediatrician. “I was drawn to remapping how other children experience medicine.”
She refuses to let her disability slow her down. “Medicine is not open to weakness,” she said. “If you falter, someone else is affected. I never wanted to be the weak link. People who take a sick day just because they can baffle me. Going to work is a privilege. We all want to live, laugh and give back to society in some meaningful way. We model that it can be done, despite challenges in the way.”
Cerebral palsy left Dr. Bill Saunders, a retired family practitioner in Mt. Vernon, WA, with weakness in his legs and back. He tires and falls easily. He also walks with a scissors gait, a condition in which knees and thighs hit or cross. It embarrassed him. “When kids looked at me, the first thing they’d say is, ‘Why is that guy walking like that?’” he said. “There was an element of fear.”
During his 30 years of practice, Saunders was unable to see as many patients as his able-bodied colleagues. He compensated by giving more attention to his work than to himself or his personal life. “Being a doctor was the most important thing for me.” His own experiences as a patient gave him a better understanding of his patients. “I tended to be more compassionate. You know what it’s like to be scared going into an operating room.”
Rebecca Vigen, a nurse practitioner in Grand Forks, ND, suffers from Type 1 diabetes and severe hypoglycemia. At 35, her left leg was amputated.
Despite using an insulin pump and a glucose monitor, her blood sugar can plummet, so the threat of fainting while with patients is a concern. She must adhere to a rigid eating schedule.
Her negative experience with traditional pain medications has made her more open to alternative pain management techniques for herself and her patients. “My disability has improved my listening skills and made me more empathetic,” Vigen said. “I was a patient long before I was a nurse, and I knew what kind of practitioner I wanted to be. I’ve had to come to terms with pain and lack of function. But I try to make adjustments with a smile.”
Dr. Devabrata Sinha, a physician in New Delhi, was playing football when he felt pain in his back. As it worsened, his legs became paralyzed. Diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, he was assured a full recovery. But it didn’t happen.
Sinha finished medical school but gave up his dream of becoming a surgeon, working instead at patients’ bedsides. Over the years, he watched colleagues be promoted when he wasn’t. “It hurt me tremendously,” he said. “But I never blamed my fate.” Doctors with special challenges have much to offer. “It’s probably human nature that doctors with disabilities are a little more compassionate toward their patients, especially the disabled ones,” he said. “My disability has taught me to be mentally very tough, to overcome hurdles and have faith in the Almighty.”