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American Sign Language interpreters // Standing wheelchairs // Other assistive technologies helping some physicians break barriers

A Tough Job Made Tougher

By Timothy Gower // Photographs by Eugene Richards
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Chris McCulloh with his fellow surgical residents

Eugene Richards

Chris McCulloh on morning rounds. McCulloh believes that his disability allows him to connect with patients.

Sir William Osler believed that physicians should use all of their senses when examining patients. “Learn to see, learn to hear, learn to feel, learn to smell,” implored Osler, the influential clinician and teacher, who died in 1919. Yet people who can’t see or hear, or who have other physical limitations, manage to become successful physicians. No one knows how many doctors in the United States have major disabilities, but the number seems to be rising modestly. In part that’s thanks to technology, such as electronic stethoscopes that allow deaf physicians to listen to body sounds and software that reads patient records and other important documents aloud for blind physicians.

It’s worth going to the trouble of doing what’s required to enable disabled physicians to practice, says Christopher Moreland, a hospitalist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “There’s evidence that diversity among health care professionals helps improve patient health,” he says. Deaf since birth, Moreland believes his condition benefits his interactions with patients. “I have to focus more in how I communicate,” he says. “People tell me I’m a good listener.”

Here, three people in medicine—Chris McCulloh, a resident in general surgery at Morristown Memorial Hospital, in Morristown, N.J.; Amanda Mooneyham, soon to graduate from University of California at Davis School of Medicine; and Stanley Wainapel, clinical director of rehabilitation medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx—talk about how determination and encouragement (and an occasional assist from technology) have helped them pursue and sustain careers in medicine.

The Surgeon

Chris McCulloh in the hospital wards in a standing wheelchair

Eugene Richards

Chris McCulloh, a resident in surgery, has made use of a standing wheelchair since a 2008 accident left him paralyzed below the waist.

A patient, considering an epidural injection for pain, worried about the small risk of spinal cord trauma. “I don’t want to end up a cripple,” he said—and then flushed and apologized to Chris McCulloh, seated in his wheelchair. “It really didn’t bother me,” says McCulloh, who is paralyzed from the waist down because of a spinal cord injury in 2008. Indeed, he believes his disability often helps him connect with patients. “It allows me to say, I’ve been in the bed, I’ve had tubes in me, I know what it feels like,” he says.

Before his accident, McCulloh, 34, had been accepted to several medical schools and hoped to become a surgeon—a choice that seemed impossible afterward. But then the surgeon wife of a friend noted: “We don’t move around that much in the operating room. If you can get yourself to the table, why not?”

McCulloh attended Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, where he got himself to the operating table courtesy of a standing wheelchair. He says his technique is like any other surgeon’s, with small exceptions. For instance, he can’t simply shuffle his feet to move sideways. “I need to back up, move down and come back in,” he says. “I do things differently, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do them.”

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Perseverance in Practice

Three physicians embrace careers in medicine despite their disabilities.

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