Blake Charlton

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After “riding the short bus to second grade,” Blake was inspired to overcome his disability, publish a novel for young disabled people, and then go to medical school.

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Blake Charlton

Medical School: Stanford University School of Medicine, 2013



What led to your interest in a career in medicine? Who or what inspired you?

The thing about riding the short bus to second grade is that it sucks. No kid got on that bus without having received a life-changing diagnosis: dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s, cerebral palsy, mental retardation NOS, and on and on.

We had been diagnosed so that we might receive special accommodations, special education. Looking back, I think most learning disabled people would agree that the special treatment was a good thing; however, to a seven-year-old, being removed from the “normal” kids and placed into a segregated classroom rarely feels like a kindness.

Sure, the other kids in special ed might become good friends and the teachers are devoted, but being seven is difficult enough without the knowledge that something is fundamentally abnormal about your body or brain.

I know this because I grew up as a learning disabled kid in a community of disabled kids. At seven years old, I was fascinated by the idea, the power, of a diagnosis. But I never dared dream that I’d become a doctor; “retards” — as we called ourselves and each other — did not become doctors. It was far better to daydream about becoming an astronaut who flew to Mars. And I often did daydream about exactly that. 

At twelve years old, I still could not read with anything approximating developmentally appropriate fluency. This, despite special ed and my parents’ valiant efforts to overcome my severe dyslexia. But then, suddenly, I reached a tipping point.

My parents had begun reading science fiction and fantasy books to me at night. As only a thirteen-year-old can, I fell in love with those books. I started sneaking paperbacks into special ed study hall and surreptitiously reading them under my desk when I was supposed to be completing spelling drills. As only a snarky thirteen-year-old could be, I was obnoxiously happy about the irony of it all. 

Learning to read fluently made me into a bookworm. I had a lot of catching up to do in high school, trying to move from remedial classes to the main track and then to reach, in one or two subjects, for honors.

Strangely, my best subject was English; it seemed that once I had a spellchecker, I wasn’t so bad at writing. But even though my trajectory was good, I remained daunted. I was so far behind the ”normal” kids.

In college, I tackled the sciences only with great trepidation, but after a lot of fretting and a lot of hard work, things turned out all right. For the first time, it seemed possible that I could attend medical school. I signed up to take the MCAT® exam. And yet . . . the old doubts persisted. Retards did not become doctors; some part of me believed that profoundly. I measured myself against the other premeds and felt that I was too slow, too unaccomplished, too far behind. So, I canceled my test date.

Besides, there were professions other than medicine that could make a difference. I became a teacher. I taught high school English and coached a JV football team. Then I became a private tutor for learning disabled kids. I also started working on my first novel for young adults.

I wanted to write a book like those that inspired me to read. I wanted to write a book for young disabled people, something that would show them that they were not alone, that there was hope. I also wanted the book to be lots of fun.

Last year, I published that novel. It’s called Spellwright. One critic called it “Harry Potter and the Special Ed Classroom.” I think he was trying to be flippant, but I was flattered by the comparison, and many readers enjoyed the book. The reviews have been kind to it. It went into a second printing here in the U.S., was published in the U.K. and Australia, and is being translated into French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Polish, Russian, and Hebrew. The sequel, Spellbound, will be published in September 2011.

When I was picking up literary agents and signing book contracts, I finally got over my belief that disabled people couldn’t become doctors. After three years out of school, I studied and sat for the MCAT exam. It was about as much fun as gargling with gravel, but nothing disastrous happened.

In 2007, I matriculated at Stanford Medical School and received funding from the Medical Scholars Research Fellowship that allowed me to add two years to pursue careers in both medicine and literature.

Now, in my last two years, I’m working my way through the clinical rotations. It’s difficult and often exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It took me a bit longer than others to get here, but every day I wake up — even when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. — grateful that I eventually did.  

How did you prepare for the application process?

I did most of the common things: took an MCAT prep course, begged friends to read my personal statements, saved up for airfare to get to interviews, etc.

During this process, I discovered that things happen slower for people with disabilities. As a disabled person, you will have to apply to more and different parts of the admissions apparatus. You’ll have to wait longer for approval or rejection. You’ll have to explain yourself and your capabilities quite often. I chafed against many of these long waits; unfortunately, that made matters worse.

Only when I took a step back and realized that I didn’t have to be in any rush and that there was no "schedule" by which I had to arrive at medical school did the application process begin to get easier.

If you participated in a special program, such as a combined degree, fellowship, or research work, please describe your experience.

I am grateful to the Stanford Medical Scholars Research Fellowship for the funding that allowed me to take an alternative course through medical school. The fellowship will not earn me another degree, but it has given me the opportunity to work with my mentor and MD-novelist hero, Dr. Abraham Verghese, in his endeavor to revitalize the teaching of the physical examination in America.

Dr. Verghese has made cogent arguments in publications ranging from the New England Journal of Medicine to the Wall Street Journal that one consequence of today’s laudable diagnostic technologies has been an atrophy of physician skills at the bedside. This has not been the case in countries such as the U.K. or Canada, which by many assessments possess more efficient health care systems. In an attempt to improve bedside skills, Dr. Verghese created “The Stanford 25 Initiative in Bedside Medicine,” which strives to provide Stanford’s internal medicine residents with mastery in 25 essential physical diagnosis skills.

I was fortunate enough to become Dr. Verghese’s research assistant when he was launching the initiative. I helped prepare his “master class” sessions to the residents and authored the Stanford 25 website, which is designed as a hub of physical examination resources. When The New York Times ran a story on Dr. Verghese and the Stanford 25, the website received over 100,000 hits in two days. It continues to receive about 500 hits per day.

Of course, not all medical educators agree about the importance of bedside skills, and I was fortunate enough to witness and participate in the debate about how medical education should accommodate evolving technology and health care costs. 

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?

To anyone who’s applying with a disability or from a disadvantaged position, I counsel patience with both the process and yourself.

Premedical and medical students often get caught up in the idea that things have to happen “on time.” Certainly, one can’t miss promised deadlines; however, the longer I am in medicine, the more I realize that most of the physicians I admire got to where they are by nontraditional and often wandering paths.

Have faith, keep working, don’t be too hard on yourself when times are rough, and take some time to enjoy the journey!

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