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Doctor Takes a Stand Sitting Down: Community TV

  • Richard Cohen:

    Dr. Ryan Martin is the only person ever to graduate Yale Medical School in a wheelchair.  How he found himself in that chair and the journey he has taken since could be a movie script, unlike what Hollywood puts out now.  There's real life lessons in -- for all of us in his story.  Ryan, let me ask you this, when people look at you do they see a person or a wheelchair?

  • Ryan Martin:

    There's probably two answers to that.  I think most of my friends just see me.  And then people that are meeting me for the first time, first see the chair, and then immediately see past it once we've talked and ...

  • Richard:

    But are they startled?

  • Ryan:

    You mean patients?

  • Richard:

    Well, patients or colleagues.

  • Ryan:

    I don't think anyone's startled.  I don't think anyone's startled.  But when — as soon as the conversation starts going, I think the chair disappears.

  • Richard:

    You were 12 years old when your life changed forever.  Sort of take us through what happened.

  • Ryan:

    Our babysitter's husband was abusing the babysitter.  And she essentially stopped coming to work and disappeared.  We had no idea what happened to her.  However, the husband assumed that we were keeping her from him.  And so, he began to stalk us for several months on the phone and driving by the house and walking by the house.  I guess it was for several months.   And then one night, as my family's pulling up in front of our house, he ambushed us — jumping out of his car.  Shooting at my stepfather.  Missing a couple of times and then turning the gun on me, as I attempted to get back into the car.  This guy then fled and confronted other people that he thought may be harboring his wife.  And he encountered a standoff with the police and then he shot himself in the head.

  • Richard:

    Wow, wow.  So he shot you in the back?

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, he shot me twice — twice in the back.

  • Richard:

    And do you remember this clearly?

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, I mean I have a very clear memory of the actual shooting itself.  The whole encounter — which probably was only about 10 seconds — and then everything else is rather blurry.  But I can definitely visualize it very easily.

  • Richard:

    Do you remember the ambulance?

  • Ryan:

    I remember hearing the ambulance come for me, which is I think one of the scariest memories I have from that whole episode, which is rather unusual.  But you know you hear sirens all the time.  But it sounded very different to me knowing that it was coming for me. So that is a very vivid memory I have.  But actually being in the ambulance, I have no memory of that.

  • Richard:

    You were a gifted athlete.  I'm told you were swift on your feet.  Is that true?

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, I mean I sort of — you know, like many young people in the States I was a huge soccer fan.  So I lived and breathed soccer for most of my childhood and played on traveling teams all over the place.  And had a goal at the time of playing collegiate soccer and that was my hope.  But I also played just about every other sport you can imagine,  but definitely soccer was my thing.

  • Richard:

    And at 12 years old you must have been lost.

  • Ryan:

    I don't know how lost I was, because I was so sort of busy doing what I needed to do, in terms of rehabilitation.  So, rehab became my schooling and my job.  And so, it sort of went from going to school every day to then living this -- living at the rehab facility.  Just getting -- learning how to use the chair -- gaining my strength and doing -- and actually doing schooling there as well.  So I don't know that I had time to be so lost.

  • Richard:

    And your mother was very active with you, right?

  • Ryan:

    Extremely active and probably too active, and I've told her that many times.  But essentially, she decided that I needed to try everything that I could try being in a chair like various different sports and things like that.  Like skiing, water skiing, basketball, track, tennis -- try everything.  And see what I liked, in order to get myself sort of back to where I used to be.  Pick a passion of mine and go with it.  So, that's what I did.  In the first year — a year or two out of my injury, I just sort of explored everything that there was to explore in order to choose what would drive me.

  • Richard:

    But did she — I just wonder whether she pushed you to succeed.  I could imagine an injury like that could be a convenient excuse for a kid to stop pushing.

  • Ryan:

    I don't know that she was -- I don't think that she was driving me to succeed.  I think in her mind she was, and I never sensed that at all.  It was just sort of, “Let's find something that you would be good at.  That you want to do and that would make you happy.” 

    And I think it was more of a -- I perceived it more as a motherly thing, rather than a sort of an orchestrated event.  It was more her just wanting me to be happy and that's the way I perceived it.  And I'm pretty sure that's the way she intended it. 

  • Richard:

    Were you self-confident, or did you doubt yourself?

  • Ryan:

    Oh, I mean I doubt -- I doubt myself even today, every day.  But I ...

  • Richard:

    But do you -- you don't doubt yourself today because of your injury, do you?

  • Ryan:

    No, no, no.  I mean it's just sort of everyday life stuff.  It's irrespective of the chair.  But I don't think that I was doubting myself specifically, because of the chair.  I think just growing up doubts that you have.  I think that's what I was having.  Obviously, I don't have any comparison, but I think that's the way it was with me.

  • Richard:

    So you went to school in Miami and I take it you were really into wheelchair tennis and basketball?  Did you have long-term ambitions, or was this sort of your escapism?

  • Ryan:

    Well, you know after my injury I became very active in tennis and gained a lot of sponsors.  And was able to travel all over the world playing in a wheelchair tennis circuit for maybe seven or eight years.  And as I progressed and got better I was sort of invited to more and more things.  And that became a terrific escape for me, and it was also great for being with my friends.  Because I could play tennis with my friends and beat all of them.  So, it was a very equalizing thing for me, so that was terrific.  And that actually afforded me to be able to travel.  To be able to do things I wanted to do and to remain athletic and be in competition. So, when I went to University of Miami, my goal was to get a degree.  And also be in a climate where I could play year round and continue my tennis accomplishments.

  • Richard:

    And when you transferred to Arizona, you decided to pursue a course — to pursue a career in medicine.  How was that corner turned?

  • Ryan:

    It was sort of a bizarre, sort of a bizarre turn of events.  But essentially, I went out to Arizona State with the intention of going into broadcast journalism.  And as I was out there I was intending to also continue tennis.  However, when I went out there, I sort of stopped playing tennis, as I sort of felt that I had burned out slightly on the tour. 

    And I decided to start playing basketball, so I played for the Phoenix Suns' wheelchair basketball team.  And during my junior to senior year of college, I on a whim said, “Oh, maybe I should think about medical school.”  So, I took a few science classes, which I had never taken before and I aced them. 

    And that lead to a few more courses.  So, basically I took all my sciences in the last year of college in order to get into med school.  So, it was really a kind of a late -- late unusual progression for most people that go into medicine.

  • Richard:

    Right, and you end up at Yale? 

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, and then I ended up at Yale.

  • Richard:

    That's quite a journey. 

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, I mean ...

  • Richard:

    That's a very circuitous journey.

  • Ryan:

    Well, right.  I mean, that's sort of the way my life has been.  But at some point, when I realized that I could hang with these science classes that had previously intimidated me, the fear was no longer there and I was able to excel.  And as a result of that, I applied to many medical schools and initially didn't get in. But then got into Yale as an addition to several other schools.

  • Richard:

    And now, were you considered an anomaly by anybody, be it faculty or friends?  Or were you just one of the medical students?

  • Ryan:

    I don't really know.  I mean, I don't believe that I was ever perceived as an anomaly, because people get over that initial chair thing in five seconds.  I mean it's, “Oh, he's in a chair” and then they move on.  And so, I don't think that it's as -- I don't think it's as obvious and as debilitating as people think it may be to have that first impression that way.  I mean, the faculty were all very warm and welcoming.  And the only thing that the university really ever had to do with me was to acquire a chair that stands up, so that I could be in the OR.  And so, there were no — there really weren't any things to do to make my schooling equivalent to anyone else's.  So, it was really, you know I came in as a, I came in as a student who was in a chair, but no one realized -- it was not a big deal to anybody.  And that ...

  • Richard:

    Tell us about that chair that stands up.  I've seen it.  It's a very unusual chair.

  • Ryan:

    Well, I mean it's looks like the chair that I'm in right now.  Just an everyday lightweight wheelchair -- a sports wheelchair.  It looks just like that. However, underneath there's two -- looks like little bike pumps.  And essentially, it goes from a chair that's sitting into a standing position manually.  There's no motor on it.  It's just, it just uses an air compressor.  And literally it goes from a sitting position to a standing position as upright, or as in between upright and sitting as I need.

  • Richard:

    That's extraordinary.  So, it sounds like, well, it sounds as if you have no baggage that you're carrying around.  Do you feel like you've made it?

  • Ryan:

    I've never felt like I made it and I never will and that's, I think that's sort of part of my strength and part of my, and to my detriment as well.  I mean it sort of becomes hard to absorb good things that you've done in your life, when you don't really acknowledge them.  But at the same time, it also keeps you driven enough to go after other things.  So it's the same thing that I encountered in sports.  Even if when I won big tournaments, I was always sort of looking at the next thing without really celebrating the win.  And so, there's good and bad to that.

  • Richard:

    And when you were in school, you had to do the regular rotations, right?  They didn't cut you any slack?

  • Ryan:

    Oh yeah, I, everything was the exact same as anyone else, except I was seated.  That was it.  No difference.

  • Richard:

    Now, I heard an interesting story when you were on a psych rotation dealing, I think, with somebody that's schizophrenic, and I -- does that ring a bell?

  • Ryan:

    Yes, it does.  It rings a bell.

  • Richard:

    What's that story?

  • Ryan:

    Well, the story is, is that I was going out to greet a patient who I was going to bring back to interview.  And so, I went out to the waiting room and called this person in and he has a history of schizophrenia.  And so, we were going to talk about his medications and how things were going.  And so, it was the first time meeting him, so I brought him back to the office.  Then I said, “So, how you doing sir?”  And he said -- he looked at me sort of up and down and said, “Clearly, a lot better than you.”  And so, that's the way we started our interview and ...

  • Richard:

    How do you respond to that?

  • Ryan:

    I just laughed and we got along fabulously after that.  You can't fault someone with a great sense of humor.

  • Richard:

    True. But you know, we live in a culture, and I make this argument all the time, we live in a culture that celebrates beauty and physical perfection.  And I don't think people want to see others who are sick or disabled.  And it's hard to believe that people don't react at all to you being in a wheelchair.  I heard, for example, that people would speak loudly to you. What was that all about?  You know as if you were hard of hearing. 

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, it happens all the time.  I mean I just -- you just sort of take everything with a grain of salt.  I mean, if all these things really angered you, you'd make it nowhere in this world.  I mean, there's a million examples of this for any disability, or with any prejudice -- whatever.  But you know, I mean, it happens even to this day, where I'll go to a restaurant and someone will ask my wife, “What does he want for dinner?” even though I'm sitting right there, or they'll talk very loudly to me.  And same thing with my wife, she just laughs.  Instead of getting angry and saying, “By the way, he's a physician at Yale.”  Instead of saying something like that you just laugh.  Because you know it is what it is.

  • Richard:

    Now, I walk with a cane and I walked into a house of worship for something, and the usher didn't move a muscle or come near me until my wife went in.  And then she came over to my wife and said, “Where would he like to sit?” 

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, exactly.

  • Richard:

    You know and I wanted to say, “I speak English.”  There's an Aesop's fable that ends, “Physician, heal thyself”.  The idea being that people want a physician who's in good health.  It may be physically perfect and you don't feel that it seems.

  • Ryan:

    Well, I mean, you know, maybe that's true for some people.  But I think the bottom line is that people want a physician who one, knows in some regard what you're going through.  And two, can communicate that empathy and sympathy for situations and be able to bond with somebody, in order to gain trust -- in order to take adequate medical care of them.  And in my years of doing all of this -- I mean there really has not been anybody that has -- that I have not been able to get to in some way to be able to help them.  But you really don't -- if someone is taken aback by the chair initially, it is very short-lived.  And it goes from that reaction to them wanting to see no one else but me.

  • Richard:

    Right.

  • Ryan:

    So they're, I think people appreciate the fact that clearly I've been through something.  They don't know what it is.  But I've been through something and I'm strong enough to be here.  And I can empathize with what they're doing, and that is an instant communication highway right there.

  • Richard:

    Right. You travel a lot.  You must have some pretty interesting stories to tell about airplanes.

  • Ryan:

    I mean, I think the famous one that people always say to me is usually, usually I have a, there's a little aisle chair that the airline provides to fit down the thin aisles and the airplane.  And many people do not want to go get this chair.  And so, they try and convince me that I can walk for just a couple of rows back.  I tell them that I can't walk and they say, “Well, no, no, no.  It's just a couple of rows back don't -- it's not far.  It's just a couple of rows of back.”  So people have spent a lot of time convincing me that I can actually walk short distances, which would be an amazing thing.

  • Richard:

    It would be.  But I think people want to see it the way they want to see it.

  • Ryan:

    Well, it's the, well, it's also I'm young.  And it's the same thing when I park in handicap spots.  People often will come up and start yelling at me, until they see me get my chair out.  Because I guess when they look through the window, they don't see — they don't imagine that I'd be someone in a chair.  So we -- my wife and I encounter that a lot. 

  • Richard:

    Sure.  You know I've, as I said, I, well, maybe I didn't say.  I have MS and I've had two bouts of colon cancer.  And it really tested my belief in myself.  And I wonder if you ever find yourself having to prove anything to yourself -- not to other people, but to yourself. 

  • Ryan:

    Well, everything I do is to proving to myself.  I mean I, you know, going after tennis was proving myself to myself, and medicine as well.  I mean, I wasn't doing this for anyone else, I'll tell you that.  But there is -- I do strive to sort of prove things to myself.  But I'm also someone who, even if it's proof,  I've proved everything to other people and should have proved it to myself, it never really sinks in.  So I sort of continue that proving process on and on and on, which is a never-ending cycle, but which is rather exhausting.

  • Richard:

    Right, I'm sure.  But didn't it, I mean, I sense that you don't want to say anything self-serving, and I understand that.  But it must have taken strong personal resolve.  You know,, not just a positive attitude, but guts to get you where, to get where you got.

  • Ryan:

    Well, probably.  But, I mean, to be honest with you, if I wasn't in a chair, no one would be talking about it.  Right?  And so ... 

  • Richard:

    Right, but you are in a chair.

  • Ryan:

    Right, but, you know, it's the same thing with everything.  I'm asked, being in a chair, injuries that people, you move on.  Do what you got to do.  And life passes you by if you sit there and let it.   

    And you either want to do things, or you don't.  You either want to get in the car to go where you're going, or you don't.  And so, it never was, I don't think of myself as someone in a chair who's overcome all these things, who is now attempting to do something.  I just think, “OK, I'm Ryan.  I want to go do this and I'm going.”  And so it's really no different than that.

  • Richard:

    You recently married.  It must be gratifying to find somebody willing to share your journey with you.

  • Ryan:

    Yeah, absolutely.  And I think part of it was that it really was, it really is, it's no big deal to me about the chair and it's no big deal to her.  And it's no big deal to my friends either.  And so, I mean this is, you see people for who they are and that's it.  And so, my friends will tell you the exact same thing.  We'll be going somewhere and there'll be a flight of stairs, and they'll keep walking and forget that I can't get up them.  And then they'll be halfway up the stairs and have to turn around and go, “Oh yeah, we forgot.”  You know, I mean, these are people that have known me forever.  But this, they don't see that. And so you can let a lot of things stop you if you let them.

  • Richard:

    You probably go through a day without even thinking about those circumstances, you know, about the chair?

  • Ryan:

    Every day I go about it without thinking about it.

  • Richard:

    And it is really that much second nature and just integrated into your life?

  • Ryan:

    Yes, yes.  I would tell you 90% of my days it doesn't even, it doesn't even cross my mind.  Because it is what it is, and it's what I'm used to.  It's not a conscience thing, and I'm not trying to bury anything.  It just is what it is.  You don't go around every day saying, “Gosh, I have blue eyes" or whatever.  You know it just, it is what it is.  And so that's sort of, sort of the way it is for me.

  • Richard:

    What ...

  • Ryan:

    For good or for bad.

  • Richard:

    Right.  What would you say to a young person who has suffered a catastrophic injury like this?

  • Ryan:

    I would tell them to explore everything that they can do.  So whatever they like to do beforehand to explore what can be done afterwards.  And so, you can retain as much normalcy as you can have, and that will allow the transition to be much easier.  I mean, if you were a great athlete, you can continue to be a great athlete. 

    If you're a great painter, you can continue to be a great artist.  If you were a great musician, you can continue that.  And you just, I mean, there are things that in certain scenarios you have to use adaptations, but so be it.  I think that if you can continue the things that you are good at and continue the things that drive you after an injury, that's going to allow you to persevere and get through rough moments.  Because the bottom line is, you're good at what you're good at.  You need to identify that and continue it and that's the same with anybody.  But especially in a big transition in your life, you can always fall back on what you're good at and expand from there.

  • Richard:

    I've heard a number of people with chronic illnesses say that what they want most is to feel normal.  And you do feel normal, don't you?

  • Ryan:

    I do feel normal.  I mean, there's times where I don't, but I mean, that's OK.  I mean, that's not the end of the world.  But for the most part it is normal for me.  If the question is, “What's normal?” and it is normal for me.  And so, I think that that doesn't allow me a lot of time to sit and wonder what all the pitfalls are for things, and what all the roadblocks are.  If you just assume you're going get through it and go do something, you just do it.

  • Richard:

    Right, and life does go on, doesn't it?

  • Ryan:

    Absolutely.

  • Richard:

    Absolutely.  Well, Dr. Ryan Martin, thank you for talking to us, and I wish you well.

  • Ryan:

    Absolutely.

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