THE DISABLED IN MEDICINE

IN THE FIELD

Blind ambition: Uncommon COMP grad prepares for career
PATRICK SINCO STAFF EDITOR
“My second year was a bit more chal“Through the little hole of his wound, the immense realm of the spirit enters.” lenging than the first,” Dr Lawler said in a profile published in these pages in —Psychologist James Hillman, PhD February 2002, when he was just more than halfway through osteopathic medical school. “But I persevered.” hen The DO last left Jeffrey Indeed, on May 14 he graduated Lawler, DO, those two letters from the Western University of Health had not been added to his name. And Sciences College of Osteopathic Medanyone who knows his story can attest icine of the Pacific (COMP) in Pomona, to the wonder of that achievement. Calif. Except for one distinction, the Intelligence and fortitude are traits in ceremony was just like any other osteojust about anyone who makes it through pathic medical school graduation ceremedical school. Dr Lawler has those mony held around the nation this spring. qualities, along with a few others he When the traditional deep green silk developed along the way. scarf was placed around Dr Lawler’s

W

Jeffrey Lawler, DO (right), is congratulated by university president Philip Pumerantz, PhD, during his May 14 graduation from the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, Calif. Dr Lawler’s guide dog, Burke, who accompanied him to every class, was fitted with his own mortar board. “He’s really been a big part of my getting through medical school and becoming a physician,” Dr Lawler says. (Photo
courtesy of Western University of Health Sciences)

THE DO August 2004

Blind physician 31

IN THE FIELD

neck—the culmination of five sometimes grueling, sometimes joyous, but decidedly trailblazing years of medical school—his 178 fellow graduates jumped to their feet. A roar shot through the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Dr Lawler is blind.

Epiphany
Twenty years ago, Dr Lawler worked in aerospace defense and could more or less see just fine. He was in his 20s, and the thought of becoming a physician, first hatched in middle school, was set aside for the same reasons many seemingly outlandish dreams are abandoned—lack of confidence and lack of means. His eyesight was worsening, but he sloughed it off, bouncing between ophthalmologists who kept giving the same bleak diagnosis. He thought he just needed insulin. About a decade after accepting that he had retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that gradually reduces vision, Dr Lawler was declared legally blind. The same month, his mother passed away from cancer. Inspired by his mother’s fight for survival, Dr Lawler was renewed by the realization that his illness was not lifethreatening. The year after her death, he enrolled in undergraduate courses at the University of Colorado at Denver at

college, his heavy spirits were buoyed by his academic performance. In the back of his mind, he began to wonder again about that middle-school dream. “After my second semester as an undergraduate, I realized I could do it, based on the grades I was getting and how easy it was coming to me, having vision or not,” Dr Lawler, 44, says from his suburban Denver home, which he shares with his wife, who is also blind, a stepson, a guide dog and a boisterous miniature dachshund. “It was easy for me to retain the concepts, especially in the science courses.” Dr Lawler was friends with other students who wanted to go to medical school, and he gauged that he had similar abilities. “It’s ironic that when I had vision, I didn’t have any confidence and I didn’t think I could become a physician,” Dr Lawler says. “But once I started dealing with my blindness, I realized there was a lot there that I hadn’t tapped into.”

Winning them over
Dr Lawler’s acceptance at COMP set off a debate among the faculty and alumni about whether a blind student should be admitted to the program. How can a blind person perform such fundamental tasks as interpreting an electrocardiogram, evaluating a skin rash, or reading facial expressions?

“It’s ironic that when I had vision, I didn’t have any confidence and I didn’t think I could become a physician.”
age 34. He still retained some vision for most of his first semester (enough to have been impressed when, earlier that year, he met the woman who would become his wife). But when he looked down at his general biology final exam that fall, he saw a blank sheet of paper. He has not been able to see since. Throughout that trying first year of

—Dr Lawler

“They started out being very pessimistic,” says Brenda Premo, the director of the Center for Disability Issues and Health Professions at Western University of Health Sciences, an office formed only months before Dr Lawler started at COMP. “But then they met the man.” To her warm description of Dr Lawler, Premo adds that he is a hard

worker. This quality helped Dr Lawler win over not just his professors at COMP, but also his fellow students. “He had to carry his own weight. And once he demonstrated he could, he made good friends like people do at all schools,” says Premo, who worked closely with Dr Lawler during his years at COMP. “So, in the end, the students didn’t think differently of him than other peers.” Dr Lawler had to work especially hard. Not only did he have to complete his schoolwork, but as a blind person, he had to think up ways to just begin doing his schoolwork. “I had to be very proactive and plan and organize,” he says, “whether it was setting up notes to be read on to tape or to be scanned electronically, or talking to a publisher about getting a book into an electronic format, or going to talk to a professor two or three months before a class even starts and introducing myself. ‘This is new to me, this whole blind thing,’ I would say. The professor would say, ‘I’ve never had any blind students either.’ And I convinced him that we could get through the semester.” But beyond work habits, Dr Lawler revealed an aptitude for medicine that impressed his instructors, Premo says. “Some became very fond of him and helped him along. They said, ‘This guy has a lot of skill and talent. We’re going to have to think of ways to let him show it.’” He also won over many physicians with whom he worked on rotations, says Marie Kowalsky, the executive director of the Colorado Osteopathic Education Center, who coordinated some of his rotations. “Some of the physicians here said they were actually proud to be part of his education,” says Kowalsky, who never had encountered a blind student in her 39 years of working with osteopathic medical students. “Others said they learned more from him. He was very well-received.”

32 Blind physician

THE DO August 2004

IN THE FIELD

The coming year
As his disease opened newfound abilities within himself, Dr Lawler has chosen to specialize in psychiatry, hoping to spur similar revelations in others. “Being a physician, you have such an opportunity to stimulate your patients’ discovery of their own abilities, whether that be in healing themselves or in gaining their accomplishments,” he says. “And I like the fact that even if people are physically healthy, if they’re not mentally and emotionally healthy they’re not complete. I like that challenge about psychiatry. I really like that,” he adds. But, as some healthcare facilities are reluctant to take on a blind physician as a resident, Dr Lawler is taking a year off to concentrate on improving his prospects for landing a psychiatric residency next spring. “Because this is such a new and different thing, a lot of times I get just a blanket statement, ‘No, we don’t do that,’” he explains.

In September, he will begin an eightweek externship with a blind psychiatrist and pharmacologist at Patton (Calif) State Hospital. He is also to begin serving at a local community mental health clinic, working with support groups for patients who have bipolar disorder or who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. “I’m still trying to line up additional rotations or externships—I don’t know what you call them. We’re treading on new ground with what we’re trying to do here,” he says. Dr Lawler is also using the time to improve his computer skills and other adaptive technology skills. He has enrolled in a Toastmasters International program to improve his speaking skills, and has been jogging regularly to keep in shape. “I’m not just being free and easy. There are definitely things that I’m doing that are going to make me a better physician, a better psychiatrist,” he says.

Premo believes that Dr Lawler’s blindness will be one of his greatest strengths as a psychiatrist. “Jeff gives to the field of psychiatry his knowledge of what it’s like to go through the experience of being sighted, as well as all of the things that happen to you as you lose your sight,” Premo says. “In that way, he will offer something unique to the field. “But it isn’t his blindness that will make him a good psychiatrist. It’s his other skills and aptitudes. It’s just that he can give a little more because he will add that experience to his work helping people.” Readers interested in working with Dr Lawler—especially on psychiatric conditions related to aging, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia—can telephone Brenda Premo, the director of the Center for Disability Issues and Health Professions at Western University of Health Sciences, at (909) 469-5385, or e-mail her at bpremo @westernu.edu.

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