Navigating the Premed Journey With Disabilities

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PMY 506: Navigating the Premed Journey With Disabilities

Session 506

Some of you out there may be struggling with a disability of your own, whether seen or unseen. We never know what anyone is dealing with. Today’s guest, Emma, joins us today as we talk about the premed journey and how to navigate having a disability as a premed.

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

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[02:43] Her Interest in Becoming a Physician

Emma got into an accident during her freshman year of high school. Even though her stepfather is a physician, she had no interest in being a physician growing up. Her siblings had special needs and she grew up in healthcare but she thought medicine just wasn’t for her growing up.

Yet finding herself at a Trauma I center for about three weeks, she knew it was what she wanted to do. And it wasn’t until four or five years later she started pursuing it.

Coming from an extremely underrepresented area in Central Valley, Emma explains they have never seen anyone with a physical disability as a physician. And having no knowledge of the extent of her physical disability at that time, she wasn’t even sure if she could even make it through medical school residency.

Emma graduated high school at 16 years old and did computer science as her major which she finished in three years. She then worked with the Walt Disney Company and did their engineering program. When she didn’t get the internship, she realized it wasn’t the field for her.

At that time, she was also part of a mentoring program where she was surrounded by premed, pre-PA, and pre-nursing students. It reminded her of how badly she wanted to do it.

[07:06] Are There Physicians on Wheelchairs?

As part of exploring the possibilities, Emma found a New York Times article called, I Use a Wheelchair. And Yes, I’m Your Doctor.

She then realized she could do it. The article talked about how they have developed standing wheelchairs for surgeons and how there’s still so much to go. That gave her the confidence to push through.

For her, most of the stress wasn’t school in the beginning but finding places where she could shadow. Finding shadowing opportunities is very challenging in and of itself, much less being in a wheelchair.

That being said her first shadowing experience was in an orthopedic institute. They had a shadowing program set up for pre-PAs. She was just willing to fight tooth and nail for shadowing opportunities, even if it was just for two hours, once a week, or two hours one day. She was willing to do it because every case was interesting.

Part of the reason she didn’t just show up outright was to prevent herself from being embarrassed because she had been in that situation. She remembers being stuck on a fourth floor and having the police bring her downstairs as a full-blown adult. She found it mortifying that she would rather just be told no.

And so, her mindset was, why would she want to shadow someone that won’t even consider her over the phone when she was giving them a heads-up about her condition? If they’re not even willing to accommodate her, then why would she want to shadow there?

With that, she developed this kind of mindset that helped her with applications in terms of learning how to filter. 

[15:54] Finding the Resources

She actually reached out to the woman who wrote the article. She had cerebral palsy, and it developed while she was in med school. So it was a slightly different situation. She was worried about how she was going to appear to schools and to departments.

She got referred to someone at Michigan who was a part of creating accommodations for the AAMC as well as to students and amazing papers, but there wasn’t really a lot or she couldn’t find them.

'I got a little bit of information, and I realized I'm just going to have to create the information. I'm just going to have to create the resources.'Click To Tweet

At the end of that first semester, she started creating Instagram so she could post her story with the hope that people would reach out to her and give her information. Eventually, she learned more about how to navigate through the platform.

She also attended two premed conferences. It was not a really positive experience for her, but still, she was able to find her top five schools. It was not because they had research programs she was interested in. But because they treated her like a person.

[23:16] Osteopathic Schools vs. Allopathic Schools

The mind-body-spirit is a big thing for her and she knows it’s the three tenets of osteopathic medicine.

Despite her experience, Emma says she was the most optimistic patient in the building. She was always excited and uplifted. She thinks it was the reason she had been able to recover as much as she did.

As she was looking into schools, she was looking at those that would look at her as a whole and look at her story. And she found that the schools that looked at her that way and where she felt supported were osteopathic schools.

[26:08] Why She Decided Not to Go to a Caribbean School

She did apply to the Caribbean as well and she got interviews. Unfortunately, Caribbean schools did not have the health care that she needed while she was in medical school as a student. And that’s what it came down to.

Emma needed a pain management physician who specializes in anesthesiology, and they did not have that. She was even offered a scholarship but then she would have to fly back every six months to change her medication, had she decided to go to the Caribbean.

The school even interviewed her with a 497 MCAT. But every other school that interviewed her reevaluated her app once her MCAT got to a 502 after she took the MCAT again.

[30:11] Her Interview Experience

All of her interviews were done through Zoom and she thinks there’s an implicit bias. You’re being seen in the same light as all your other candidates. They don’t have to move a chair for you. They don’t have to see you rolling. You’re all sitting on Zoom like any other applicant. And Emma thinks this definitely helped.

All of her interviews were virtual except for one pharmacy interview that was in person at Midwestern that denied her for her MCAT. She found out that for the dental and medical school programs, if you miss their interview threshold in one category, they immediately send you to the pharmacy program.

[33:26] The Challenges She Has to Hurdle Through

Emma admits there are a few things she is worried about. One is the USMLE and COMLEX accommodations. She got accommodations for the MCAT that she even got a push back in her school because her test was split over two days. But these people are not on pain medication. They’re not in a wheelchair and they don’t have a traumatic brain injury.

That being said, she knows that the COMLEX and USMLE accommodations are 10 times easier to get.

Her other concern is clinical and residency. She is going to a school where she’s the first person to have a physical disability. They were supportive of the accommodations she needed. However, she also went through many situations where physicians did not want her to shadow them.

She had clinical hours as a CNA but not certified. The floor staff would purposefully not give her any task because they didn’t think she was capable of completing it. 

And she’s worried that’s going to affect how residencies choose her. But she knows she chose a school that’s going to be supporting her.

'We need more doctors with chronic illnesses so that they can advocate for patients with chronic illnesses.'Click To Tweet

[38:53] The Decision to Defer

Emma got accepted to Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine but had to defer it. Her entire body was holding on until she got the acceptance. Having to navigate through the entire application school process and taking the MCAT twice, not to mention the cost associated with it, was all too stressful. When she got accepted, it was just one medical emergency after another for about a month.

It was a good call to defer too because a week after deciding to defer, she found out another thing that caused her to be forced to medically withdraw from the semester. She’s still in school and is scheduled to graduate this fall. She has a light load so everything is working out.

[40:25] Final Words of Wisdom

Emma wishes to tell students who may also be struggling with disability, that your passion is what’s going to get you through it. You’re going to get through the obvious discrimination and all the hoops and barriers that you have to go through. Just remember that you want this and you’re going to put your all into it and it’s going to be worth it.

'When you're tired of organic and biochem sequences and you just want to break, that passion is what's going to get you through.'Click To Tweet

It’s going to be 10 times better in the end, because you realize how much work you put into it. It’s not going to feel like work. It’s going to feel like a huge accomplishment from something you’ve been just trying to get up for years and just remember that passion.

Finally, story plays a huge role. Just remember your story. Remember your passion, remember your why. And it will all work out, truly.


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I Use a Wheelchair. And Yes, I’m Your Doctor