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Doctors With Disabilities Look For Recognition


When it comes to the field of medicine, doctors are sometimes seen as superhumans, jumping in to handle emergencies around the clock, performing all kinds of physically demanding work. But a growing movement of current and aspiring doctors with disabilities says this narrative is a disservice to the profession and patients. Elana Gordon reports.

ELANA GORDON, BYLINE: Lisa Iezzoni was in medical school at Harvard in the early '80s when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had started experiencing some of the symptoms, including fatigue. She wasn't letting that get in the way of her goal, but then there came this moment.

LISA IEZZONI: When I scrubbed in on a surgery one time, the surgeon, at a kind of slack time during the operation, turned to me and said, do you want my opinion about whether you should become a doctor? And what am I going to say? I'm a third-year medical student. I said, I'd be happy to hear your opinion. And he then opined that I had no right to go into medicine because I lacked the most important quality in medicine, and that was 24/7 availability.

GORDON: Iezzoni didn't end up becoming a doctor. She says she just didn't have the support. But she's now a leading health policy researcher at Harvard. She's quick to point out that her med school experience happened before the Americans With Disabilities Act. But a recent report from the Association of American Medical Colleges found that the medical culture has been slow to evolve. Many students and doctors still conceal their disability out of fear of bias. That reality only drives me Feranmi Okanlami even harder.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: I think that once people see how many people are already out there practicing with disabilities, I think that that will normalize this more.

GORDON: Okanlami is a doctor at the University of Michigan. He's partially paralyzed from a spinal cord injury. He says, sure; he might not be the guy on the ground doing chest compressions during a code when someone stopped breathing, but a doctor is more than that.

OKANLAMI: You have to be the person that is deciding what medication to give. You have to make sure that the people doing chest compressions are doing them adequately. You have to think about what could be the reason why this person, you know, stopped breathing or their heart stopped. The tasks required to run a code aren't all just physical tasks.

GORDON: That perspective has made all the difference for future doctors like Stacy Jones. She's entering her final year of med school.

STACY JONES: I think that when I see patients and families that - you know, like, maybe they have a kid who just received this diagnosis, and they're sort of receiving this narrative of, like, your kid needs help; your kid needs special education; your kid, you know, isn't perfect.

GORDON: Jones knows that struggle. She has a learning disability. But she's figured out what she needs to succeed in medicine. She thinks her experience will make her an even better doctor.

JONES: I have the viewpoint where I could say, like, no, your child is perfect; your kid is smart; your kid is capable; this is not a tragedy. Disability is not a tragedy.

GORDON: That understanding can be critical to patients. Researchers, including Iezzoni, that former med student with MS, have found that those with disabilities are less likely to receive recommended treatments and screenings, like pap tests. To her and this new wave of doctors, the most able physician of the 21st century is the one who can relate to all patients, whatever they're facing, and has the skills and creativity to give the best care. For NPR News, I'm Elana Gordon.

COLEMAN: This story was produced in partnership with WHYY's The Pulse, NPR and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elana Gordon covers the health beat at KCUR. She was previously a production assistant for KCURâ