A number of doctors who use wheelchairs have successfully specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Of the more than 25 wheeler docs I have found, eight have become physiatrists, half of whom are women. Today, almost all of them are practicing in the PM&R field. Meghan Wilson graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and now has her private practice in Youngstown, Ohio. Kim, well-known in the disability community through her affiliation with Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California, also practices at St. Jude Medical Center in Brea, California. She received her medical degree from Keck School of Medicine (University of Southern California).
Allison Kessler, in her first year as a physiatrist at Shirley Ryan Abilities Lab, a state-of-the-art facility in Chicago that combines research with ongoing rehab in an innovative teamwork setting, became a T12 para from a ski-jump accident at age 15. At the time she was an all-around athlete at a well-known private boarding school in Connecticut, “I went back to Choate because I valued the community, but reintegration was not easy. I mostly had to make all new friends.” Administrators offered to waive Choate’s athletics requirement for her, but she said no. A friend she respected told her she had the right qualities for the crew team. “She told me I should be a coxswain. She knew I was a leader, excelled in a team environment, and was very competitive.”
Kessler participated in crew through high school, during college at Harvard, and while getting her master’s from London School of Economics and Political Science, where she concentrated on public health and Sociology. “It was absolutely important to my identity after losing my friends following my accident.”
From London she moved to Chicago, where she got her medical degree at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “I used a standing chair to do my surgical rotation. Everything took planning and logistical foresight, and I learned it was OK to ask for help. I don’t need to walk to do what I do.” At Feinberg she also met her husband-to-be. During her fellowship at the SRA lab, she became pregnant. Her daughter, Brooke, will soon be 2 years old.
Working in a state-of-the-art rehab center is the perfect placement for Kessler. Like Meghan Wilson, her background in sports prepared her for the rehab environment, where hard work and commitment are critical to the recovery process. And SRA, with its emphasis on teamwork between doctors, patients and researchers, is not that different from crewing, where everyone works in sync to move the boat forward, one stroke at a time.
Image credit: Photo by Author