Claudia Martinez

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Claudia has had multiple hospitalizations, brain surgeries, and health issues throughout medical school but has finished her second year. Her advice to premeds is to never give up on your dream.

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Undergraduate: University of Houston, 2013
Major: Biology and Chemistry
Medical school: McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, 2020

What makes your story unique?

I’m studying to be a doctor while living as a patient. During my first year of undergrad, I was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation (a condition where a portion of the cerebellum herniates out of the bottom of the skull, compressing the brainstem) and Syringomyelia (the development of a fluid-filled cyst (syrinx) within the spinal cord). At the time, I had no idea my life would change forever. Since then, I’ve lived in and out of the hospital, sometimes hospitalized months at a time. I’ve undergone 6 major brain surgeries, 4 feeding tube surgeries, 5 shunt surgeries, multiple procedures, diagnostic tests, and have been diagnosed with Hydrocephalus (a buildup of too much cerebrospinal fluid in the brain), Trigeminal Neuralgia (a chronic pain condition that affects the 5th cranial nerve), Adrenal Insufficiency (a condition in which the adrenal glands do not produce adequate amounts of steroid hormones) and Tethered Brainstem (where the brainstem becomes pinned to the dura, the outer covering of the brain) along the way.

Most recently, in February 2017, I went in for my 6th brain surgery to fix a Tethered Brainstem I developed and I woke up from surgery unable to function from the neck down. There are only 3-4 case reports of a Tethered Brainstem in the literature; because of this we knew surgery was going to be risky and experimental. An MRI after surgery showed I suffered a stroke to my brainstem during surgery. Because of this I spent months in the hospital re-learning how to do absolutely everything. From learning to bathe, dress, feed myself again, to becoming left handed and learning to write, type, and turn a page in a book and even how to walk again. Every single thing we do in everyday life that most of us take for granted, I had to re-learn, all while trying to still continue medical school and follow my dream of becoming a doctor.

How have you been able to continue medical school?

There were days when I’d study just by listening to recordings of lectures because I couldn’t see, days when I used audio command to operate my computer because I couldn’t lift my hands, days when I had to have someone push me in my wheelchair to be able to go to school because I couldn’t push myself, days when I had to attend dinner meetings and just look at other people eat at the table while my feeding tube was hooked up to my body because I couldn’t swallow anything by mouth. But, in my eyes, these were the good days since I was still able to do something because some days I was unconscious in a hospital bed.

Living in and out of the hospital has been difficult and at times my dream of becoming a doctor felt like it was fading away with my health, but today I just finished my 2nd year of medical school at McGovern Medical School in the Texas Medical Center and am doing well.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

Being the first person in my family to graduate from college and, of course, the first to attend medical school, I feared that maybe my dreams were too big. I feared failing amidst many of my fellow classmates who have parents who are physicians.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

As a patient, I’ve been treated at Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center. This also happens to be one of the major teaching hospitals for my medical school. As a patient, I loved the care I received from all my teams of doctors and knew I wanted to go to medical school here. I’m now attending the same medical school that has treated me all these years and many of my doctors are also my teachers.

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?

I remember the Houston Chronicle was there to interview and take pictures of me for an article about my story. They asked me to put on my white coat for the picture and as I put it on I couldn’t help but shed a few tears thinking, “I’m finally here. You’ve been the patient, but now you are going to be a doctor”.

What was your first year of medical school like?

One word: crazy! In undergrad I was used to getting perfect grades. A lot of my classmates and I struggled with accepting that we weren’t going to be able to get a perfect score on every exam. As it is said, “medical school is like drinking water from a fire hose”, but after a while you learn how to manage it.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

Yes! I was definitely a paper, pen and highlighter kind of girl, but there was just so much information that I had to adapt to using my laptop for everything. I also used to be a class-goer, but after missing so much school by being in the hospital I adjusted to streaming the lectures at 2x speed.

Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

I organize the Houston 5k Conquer Chiari Walk each year and to date we have raised over $55,000 for Chiari Research. Through this I have created a support system in Houston for families who have someone affected by Chiari. Apart from this, I love working with various non-profit organziations and mentoring kids. I’m always looking for ways to give back to my community. As far as research, my latest project has been with an incredible pediatric neurosurgeon working on a project over Hydrocephalus. Our manuscript was recently accepted for publication.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

I still struggle with this, but I try to treat medical school like a job. I prioritize my day and unless it is absolutely necessary, I will try to only do my work during those hours.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

I’ve had to balance multiple hospitalizations, brain surgeries and health issues throughout medical school, which has been incredibly difficult.  I’ve gone to school and have even seen my own patients while having to use a wheelchair or using a walker and have had to carry a feeding tube pump and feeds with tubing connected to my stomach.  It has been hard, but thankfully my school has been incredible in working with me. Where there is a will, there is a way.

What do you enjoy most about medical school?

My medical school is like a big family, which is one reason why I chose to attend McGovern. Everyone is always ready to lend a helping hand. It is a rare attribute to find in a school and I feel blessed to be surrounded by such amazing classmates.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

It is not as hard as I thought it was going to be. I mean, yes, it is hard, but once you get into a routine that works for you it is all about keeping up with it.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

Compete with no one but yourself. Learn to be resilient in the face of adversity. Be able to adapt to change. And never give up your dream.

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