Quadriplegic Fulfills Dream Of Becoming Doctor -- Medical-School Grad Pursued Goal Despite Repeated Rejections
NEW YORK - Five years ago he was told it was unrealistic to hope to be a doctor.
Today, Jim Post, who has been a quadriplegic since a diving accident a dozen years ago, is to graduate with honors from Albert Einstein Medical School in the Bronx, one of the nation's best.
In the fall, as one of 24 new doctors selected from 6,000 applicants, he will begin an internship and then a residency in internal medicine at Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital.
Post, 26, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., says his elation stems not just from his accomplishment, but also from his satisfaction in proving wrong all of the Pennsylvania medical schools that rejected him.
"If I'd known then what I know now, I'd like to go back and be interviewed again," he said. "When I think back at some of the arguments they used against me, now I could answer them and show them just how bogus they were."
Many medical educators still wouldn't be swayed; they say they hold to the belief that all doctors should graduate with the ability to give CPR to revive a patient, or to draw blood, or to insert an intravenous needle.
"There was never any question in my mind that he could do the academic work," said A. Charles Winkelman, a neurologist on the admissions committee at Pennsylvania's Allegheny University for the Health Sciences. Winkelman was on the committee that rejected Post.
"A student has to be able to feel a patient's carotid artery, to feel the abdomen and find the edge of the liver. . . . We would have had to make significant changes in the stipulations necessary for graduation from medical school, and we were not prepared to make exceptions just for him," Winkelman said.
But the doctors at Albert Einstein say that Post has shown that medicine, with its increased reliance on sophisticated imaging technology and blood analysis, may not require hands-on ability.
Ability to visualize illness
At Albert Einstein, Michael Reichgott, associate dean for clinical education, said Post has used his considerable medical knowledge to "visualize pathological problems that an average student cannot." Post impressed even his most skeptical teachers, Reichgott said, by demonstrating that "he could understand and interpret what a physical exam was showing better than other students" who had touched the patient.
Post's admission to Einstein was not without conditions. The school required him to hire - at his own expense - a physician's assistant, at $40,000 a year, to help him perform his clinical work in his last two years. He has paid for that and for medical school with his settlement from the injury.
"In Jimmy's situation, someone else has to feel the edge of a liver, how big it is and what it feels like, and then he must apply that to his analysis and make a diagnosis," Reichgott said. He said that Post, with a physician's assistant he could trust, could conceptualize liver disease even though he couldn't feel it himself.
His success inspires others
Since Post was accepted, the medical school has had two other quadriplegic applicants, both of whom were rejected, Reichgott said. In one case, the applicant seemed unrealistic in the goals he had set for himself. Another was so severely disabled - without Post's limited use of his arms and one hand - that he couldn't handle a stethoscope or otoscope.
Post shared his success, however, with Dale Bannon, 27, a quadriplegic from Okmulgee, Okla., who says Post helped him get into the University of Oklahoma Medical School. Post made numerous phone calls, not only to prepare Bannon for interviews but also to get his professors to contact the University of Oklahoma to assure them that someone with such a disability could excel.
"I'm so fortunate to have someone like Jim to be a trailblazer," Bannon said. "If it had not been for Jim Post, I probably wouldn't be realizing my dream and going to medical school this fall."
Diving led to injury
Post was injured at a Boy Scout camp in 1985. In a dive, his head hit bottom, and he said he instantly felt as though he had been encased in cement.
"All I saw," he said, "was incredibly brown, thick, muddy water. I thought I was going to drown. I tried to swim. I couldn't move. I couldn't roll over. I kept holding my breath, just holding on as I slowly floated back to the surface with my stomach down. I started praying."
He still remembers being pulled from the water, being rushed to the hospital, the sensation of tongs inserted into his skull to hyperextend his neck. When he was at Alfred I. du Pont Institute, a rehabilitation center in Wilmington, Del., doctors told him he would never walk again.
"My injury blossomed my interest in medicine," he said. "I remember watching the doctors and hearing them talk, and I wanted to know everything about my condition. `What do you mean my spinal cord is injured?' I'd ask. `Why are my calcium blood levels high?' "
He began to show the kind of tenacity that eventually impressed the admissions committee at Einstein, by coming back and graduating from Bishop Hoban high school in Wilkes-Barre on time.
In the summer after graduation, he met Saretha Wade, who had been a prom queen at a high school across town and was about to attend school to become an X-ray technician.
The two started dating. "As soon as I saw him I liked him," she said. "I could talk to him." Five years later they married. Their son, Jimmy, was born 19 months ago.
While they dated, Post went to Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, where he graduated with a 3.92 grade-point average, and then took a year of graduate study in biochemistry at the University of Scranton, where he got straight A's.
Initial efforts rebuffed
He applied to all of Pennsylvania's medical schools and to three others and was rejected by all. He then began what amounted to his own public-relations and lobbying campaign. He appeared on television and radio talk shows, and he assembled a list of doctors and medical educators around the country who, he thought, might help him.
During one television talk show, Herbert Schaumberg, a physician at Einstein who had been invited by producers to appear with Post, suggested that Post apply there.
After numerous interviews, officials determined that Post was worth any risk his acceptance might entail.
Post recalls spending his first two years waking early, going through the arduous process of getting dressed with the help of his wife, and then going to class. Then, he said, he would hit the books until midnight.
He sailed through anatomy and was recognized as one of the top students in that course, using a standing wheelchair to observe the dissection of the cadaver, which was shared by four other students, and using a tool attached to a wrist splint for examination work.
When his clinical rotations began, the issue became whether he could manage and receive enough useful data from the physician's assistant he had hired. After his first assistant did not work out, he found one he felt comfortable with.
In his first night on his internal-medicine rotation, he was alarmed when a nurse told him that a patient he had interviewed just hours earlier had slipped into unconsciousness.
"Her breathing was shallow, she was cold, and she simply didn't answer when I spoke to her," he recalled. "I knew she was diabetic and I looked at her chart and saw she hadn't eaten anything. I directed the nurse to prick her finger and do a glucose level. Sure enough, it was way too low. I directed the nurse to add a D50 (concentrated glucose) to her drip, and she began to come around. Next day, she was fine."
Now he looks forward to other patients. He'll do most of his writing with a computer. He can also write by strapping a pen to a splint around his wrist.
His handwriting, he says, is quite readable - "More legible than most doctors' handwriting."
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