Medical School: Stanford University School of Medicine
Specialty: Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
What led to your interest in medicine? Who or what inspired you?
As a child who had acquired spinal cord injury at 16 months of age, I began interacting with the health care system when I was very young.
From attending the pediatric SCI clinic as a toddler, to popping wheelies in my first wheelchair when I was 6, to having major orthopedic spine surgery when I was 12, I had already seen it all (good, bad, and ugly) by the time I was a teenager.
These interactions taught me what qualities I found valuable in my doctors. Most importantly, I began to observe that many physicians had a hard time understanding that simply because I was a young person with a spinal cord injury, I was not inherently sick or flawed.
I was just me, moving around the Earth on wheels instead of on two feet. Through these experiences, I began to develop my own passion to bring this same sense of acceptance and positive self-identity to my patients.
What obstacles or hurdles did you overcome in your medical school journey?
The most significant were the adaptations to participate in the operating room for my core surgery rotation. As this approached, I reached out and spoke to several other physicians who were also wheelchair users and who had successfully completed medical school.
One particular mentor, Dr. Suzy Kim, became an invaluable role model. She recommended the Levo, a manual drive wheelchair with a battery-powered standing mechanism, thus elevating the user into an upright position with the flip of a switch.
With this, I would scrub outside the OR, have one of the OR nurses push me into the room, have that same nurse assist me in donning my gown and gloves, and then utilize the back part of the wheelchair frame to push me up to the table. It worked beautifully.
How did you balance the demands of medical school and training as an elite athlete?
I’m not quite sure! It was certainly a tight schedule, but I often find that the busier I get, the more efficient I am. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of fun, too! And I considered racing to be both a form of employment as well as a way to make life into one grand adventure.
I was also fortunate to have the ability to take short leaves of absence (LOA) from medical school when my larger events were approaching. For example, I took an LOA for the 5-6 months prior to the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics in 2008.
For an event of that size and importance, there was honestly no way to train in a quality fashion while also trying to keep up with med school. Overall, I also found that racing was tied so inextricably to my identity, that there was simply no way that I could be Cheri the Medical Student without also being Cheri the Athlete.
If you participated in a special program, such as a combined degree, fellowship, study abroad, or volunteer or research work please describe your experience:
In 2004, after the Paralympics in Athens, Greece, I stayed over in Europe and completed an 8-week internship at the headquarters of the International Paralympic Committee. For me, this was a perfect marriage of the many spheres in which I lived.
As an athlete, I was incredibly proud to be living in Germany and working for the organization that had done so much to enhance my own success in life through the Paralympic Games.
As a medical student, I was able to investigate and publish on the topic of how Paralympic sport can enhance both physical health and human rights for individuals with disabilities from all regions of the world. I consider this to be one of the most pivotal and defining moments of my career thus far.
What surprised you the most about medical school?
Two things really surprised me. On the negative side, I was actually extremely surprised by the way in which the second two years of medical school really thrust me into the role of clinician. Of course, I learned to adapt and step up to the plate, but those first few months were pretty traumatic!
On the positive side, it was simply the high caliber of my classmates. I had never entered into a social environment like that before, and it was an amazing boost. I still keep in touch with many of those classmates today, and I am absolutely certain they will become lifelong friends that I hold close to my heart.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
This year, I am one of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Chief Residents. I just went to check my mailbox and amongst all the clutter was a card from a patient that I took care of one month ago on my spinal cord injury rotation. It says “Doc, I can’t begin to thank you for the care you provided me.”
Also—breaking stereotypes. I LOVE breaking stereotypes. So, when people see me in the cafeteria and ask me how long I’ve been a patient, to which I reply, “actually, I’m one of the doctors here,”—that is a good day.
Do you have additional information or thoughts to share that would be helpful to prospective students?
David Urion, a pediatrician and Children’s Hospital Boston, lectured last week. Dr. Urion has been involved in disability advocacy on behalf of his patients for many years, and he made the following statement: “Disorder is a biological fact. Disability is a social choice.”
I would invite all prospective and current students to consider this, remember it, and apply it when getting to know your patients who may roam the world in a manner other than on two feet.