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January 7, 1998

A Medical Degree and Nowhere to Go

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JAMA. 1998;279(1):82. doi:10.1001/jama.279.1.82-JMS0107-6-1

I obtained my medical degree over a year ago. Because I have a disability, I twice failed to place in a pediatrics residency. I am now collecting unemployment checks. I have cerebral palsy.

Becoming a doctor is not a dream that a child with a disability usually has. Although I attended regular school, my parents never really thought I would go to college. Becoming a doctor never seemed like an option for me, who could barely cut up food or tie shoelaces. But I gradually began to think, why not? I liked science and I enjoyed working with people—aren't those the two most common and simple reasons for wanting to be a doctor?

In premedical classes, I heard professors object to my intent to pursue a medical career. My first-year medical school classmates initially had similar reservations. Even after the second month, students expressed concern because I could not perform a clean anatomical dissection.

Speaking to classmates at an informal lunch was one of the best things I did to alleviate the other students' anxiety. I presented myself as a person with a disability and explained what cerebral palsy was and how it affected me. I answered some very basic questions and explained that my reasons for being in medical school were those of any other student. I realized that medical students have the same misconceptions of disabled people that most people do: that a disability is the worst thing a young person can have; that physical disability implies some mental or emotional instability; and that being a good doctor requires perfect abilities in all areas of functioning.

I completed medical school with a few scheduling adjustments and a determination to accept and adapt to the procedural limitations I have. As I had anticipated, I enjoyed my pediatrics rotation the most. Just as I had asked myself in applying to medical school, I once again asked myself, why not?

I have always contended that cerebral palsy is simply one attribute of my identity, just like being a single woman in her late 20s is another. Having cerebral palsy does not mean my goals and interests are any different.

However, I failed to match with pediatric programs twice. I believe the match, competitive as it is, presents particular problems for candidates who require special strategy development. In lieu of pediatrics, I completed a transitional year in internal medicine. I now have a Rhode Island medical license but feel unprepared to practice without further training.

So I am collecting unemployment checks while I apply to several other specialties.

For now, I miss seeing and influencing patients, and I miss thinking and practicing medicine. I am determined, however, to continue my medical career, and to continue educating others about my abilities as well as my disabilities.