Like any mother who finds herself in a hospital waiting room, Helen Connolly was uneasy.
It was Feb. 28, 2007, and her 15-year-old son, Chris, had been taken to the Northwestern Memorial Hospital emergency room — there had been an accident during his water polo practice.
“The nurse came out,” Helen said, “and said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but your son is quadriplegic.’ ”
Chris was terrified, frantic, Helen remembered.
“There was this sense of disbelief,” she said, “I sent a healthy young man to school this morning.”
Eleven years later, Chris is in an exam room at the University of Michigan Medical School. He is still a quadriplegic, having regained limited motion through unrelenting physical therapy. He is also a successful second-year medical student who navigated an undergrad education and master’s program in biology at Stanford.
The change from critically injured patient to budding doctor represents the convergence of a wide array of details: the school that helped lift him to extraordinary academic heights; the physical therapist who told him to walk; the teacher who questioned whether he could keep up; the engineer father who taught him to invent; the brother who didn’t give him an inch; and the mother whose determination never allowed them to fall back.
It also represents the growing movement to rethink rules that have long prevented most people with disabilities from entering the medical profession. “The standards haven’t changed, basically, since 1973,” said disability expert Lisa Meeks, who published a paper for the Association of American Medical Colleges, which assessed access for disabled medical students.
“There has always been this big disparity between the percentage of the physician workforce with disabilities and the percentage of our patients with disabilities,” said Dr. Rajesh Mangrulkar, associate dean for medical student education at the University of Michigan.
Mangrulkar led a team that worked to shift Michigan’s requirements for medical school to a model that is workable for students with a range of disabilities. They also looked at the state of technical requirements nationwide and were dismayed. “A lot of schools were very narrow, very rigid in their standards,” he said, “not really aligned with the Americans With Disabilities Act.”
One bias that disabled students face, Meeks said, is the notion that exceptions have been made for them. In fact, disabled students must still find ways to satisfy the requirements set forth by medical schools. “People may say, ‘I don’t want somebody who’s disabled to be my doctor. I want the best doctor.’ ” Meeks said. “Well, we’re talking about people who have the same sharp clinical skills and abilities; they just happen to have disabilities. These are the brightest people in the country.”
You might think of someone like Chris Connolly. “I think that I have to do everything everyone else is doing and maybe a little bit more at times,” he said.
To that end, he began practicing techniques for clinical tasks as soon as he applied to medical schools.
When he discovered that he consistently dropped his stethoscope, he took a lesson from a childhood spent tinkering in the garage with his dad, got a few basic parts from Home Depot and made a handle that helps him keep his grip. The University of Michigan has now patented a 3D-printed version of that handle as a solution that can help other doctors.
“There’s always different people,” Chris said, “who will not give you enough credit when you say you can do things. So that has always been a bit of a motivator for me all along, just that I can do these things, they might be hard, but they’re hard for everyone.”