Growing up, I was a sickly child, with the fear of hospitals and latex gloves. I associated them with pain, bad news, and new topics for my parents to argue about. I never thought I could accomplish anything extraordinary, envisioning myself as a ticking time bomb awaiting another disaster. One illness in particular caused the complete loss of motor control of my extremities and facial muscles. This resulted in feelings of self-hatred, betrayal, and vulnerability that were overwhelming to me as an eleven-year old girl. It started with a high-grade fever, vomiting, and a stiff neck. I was sent to the emergency department twice before my motor skills slowly began to crumble. At first it was my inability to hold a cup, then to take a step, then it progressed to the point where I couldn’t speak without slurring my words. Over the course of several days I completely lost the capacity to walk, move my arms, and speak. After multiple tests, my doctors confirmed I had a case of viral meningitis.
After being released from the hospital, I was confined to a wheelchair for several months, unable to even hold my head up to stop myself from drooling on my shoulder. I also developed a series of migraines because the spinal tap procedure caused a drop in the fluid that gave my brain nutrients and moisture. The migraines painfully woke me from my sleep, and reminded me of how I’d come to despise my body. During this time, I attended physical therapy to monitor the strength, control, and range of motion of my limbs. I became fascinated by my physical therapist, a woman who knew so much about the body, and partnered with other medical professionals in successfully getting me back to my old self. This woman became the physical embodiment of my hope for my future.
My rehabilitation drove my career aspirations towards one focused on helping others, especially those who face illnesses like I had. After going through such an experience, I realized I had a greater ability to empathize with others and I felt that God returned my abilities so that I would be able to spend my life in service to others.
After high school I began taking my core coursework at a community college. I always wanted to look into other higher education options, but couldn’t afford them. I felt belittled and out of place in social situations when some people commented that I wasn’t at a “real” university. I worried about how I could fit into a professional environment if I was already feeling uncomfortable in a higher education environment. It wasn’t until I got a job as a physical therapist technician during my sophomore year that I started to question whose approval I was seeking. I realized that these concerns weren’t as much as an issue once I managed to get over my once staggering fear of rejection.
I loved what the physical therapist for whom I worked was able to do. His ability to educate, assure, and relieve pain of the patients he treated made it seem like his hands were made of gold. Though I realized over time that his work was only one of the final pieces of the puzzle throughout the patient’s treatment, and it really illuminated for me how medicine is a group effort across many disciplines. It was easy to see that the support system of health professionals is vital in the successful treatment of a patient. I began forming relationships with our patients and I learned about what treatment they had received before therapy and their conditions. I was able to empathize with their frustration, pain, and emotional struggles. I knew what it was like when they doubted they would ever get better. Then, felt proud watching them weeks later walking unassisted or without pain.
The more I learned while working at the physical therapy clinic, the more I realized that I really wanted to work in the role of a physician. Sometimes my work reminded me of the feelings I had during my own treatment, and how my physician would come in or call my parents to reassure them and update them on my current health status. I knew deep down that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I continued on to anatomy and physiology and medical terminology classes. I discovered that I had an increasing desire towards pathology, not only musculoskeletal abnormalities, so I looked into shadowing physicians in internal medicine and family medicine because they diagnose a variety of illnesses seen in patients of different backgrounds, rather than one specific region. This allowed me to get a general idea of that medical specialty before venturing off into other sub-specialties to possibly shadow later on.
I eventually found a family practice physician who owned her own practice, contacted her, and was told I could start shadowing immediately. She told me about her journey to medical school, and it inspired me to begin my own path. For once I felt like someone believed in my abilities, and wanted to see me succeed. Having even one person express support to me has given me so much drive to continue to better myself throughout this learning and growing experience of self-discovery.
I don’t have anyone in my family who is in medicine, so I always thought that it might just be a field for people of a certain background and affluence. The ability to sense abnormalities with the hands, use a trained ear to detect problems, and to soothe those in pain with strong words is a privilege that I once felt was not something I could obtain for myself. But now I’ve learned you should never let something like race, culture, or past illness hold you back from doing what you love, even if you’ve never seen someone like you do it. When you create a path you have the potential to inspire others to start traveling it, too. I have used my losses to shape the person I am today, and to go beyond borders I felt were set by my previous diagnosis, and assumptions of my future poor health. The title of “physician” is not something that can be bought, but can only be earned with commitment, perseverance, and passion that comes from within, not from outside sources of pressure or lack thereof. Embrace the way that life has molded you, and allow yourself to let the difficult things in life become your greatest assets of motivation. I use my background of childhood illness to further empathize, understand, and support those around me going through a difficult time, and letting them know that their feelings are valid, and they aren’t alone.
About Jacqueline Suttin
Jacqueline Suttin is a pre-med sophomore who will transfer to the University of the Incarnate Word in the fall of 2016, where she will double-major in Nutrition Science and English Literature. A first-generation college student, Jacqueline volunteers extensively at several assisted living facilities in the San Antonio area. Outside of classes, she is involved with Beta Lambda Upsilon, a chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and is an active leader of the Social Events Committee for The National Society of Leadership and Success. She is currently working as a physical therapy technician, and has a deep admiration for the healing process and wishes to contribute to a positive and healing environment. Jacqueline is currently learning Spanish to reach a broader diversity of people, and desires to help others in her local community. She enjoys writing about her experiences as a creative outlet to the demands of being a full-time student, and part-time health professional.