I decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was a child. During my freshman year of high school, my biology partner and I even fought over who was going to get to dissect our bullfrog. But when I entered the University of Michigan’s “pre-med” program, I began having difficulty completing the required reading. Because of my slow reading rate and poor comprehension, I found myself having to study more than my peers, and I was unable to complete my exams in the allotted time. I started getting “Bs” and “Cs” instead of “As” and “Bs.” My dreams began to crumble. I sought guidance of my mentor who simply said “maybe you are just not cut out for being a physician.” My response to this interaction was typical: “Watch me!”
I looked to services for students with disabilities for support. A preliminary test showed my reading rate to be below the 3rd percentile and reading comprehension below the 5th percentile when compared to my college peers. I was then referred for neuropsychological assessment, after which I was formally diagnosed with a “language-based learning disability.” Simply put, I was devastated. I thought I could never fulfill my dream.
I made numerous attempts to pursue other careers, but found myself always coming full circle back to medicine. I finally embraced my love of medicine and returned to my “Watch Me” attitude. Along the way I learned to compensate for my disability. Through creative learning, non-traditional modes of information gathering, and test accommodations, I succeeded at completing my pre-medical requirements.
The next obstacle was the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). I applied for test accommodations and was denied. I appealed the decision using my neuropsychological test results and a letter from my physician to illustrate my need for the accommodations. But I was again denied. The basis of the decision was that, compared to the general population, my language skills remained in the “average” range. To be considered significantly disabled in this realm, I needed to be at a reading level of a 2nd grader or lower. My final plea was a phone call to the chair of the accommodations committee for the MCAT. His response to my argument was simply “I don’t want my life to be in jeopardy because my doctor has to take extra time to read my chart.” His statement moved me from frustrated to furious.
I ended up taking the MCAT without accommodations and completed approximately 75% of the test in the allotted time. My score was fair but not stellar. I figured I had nothing to lose so I applied anyway. My personal statement in my application to medical school centered on my disability and the motivation it created in my quest to become a physician. The day my acceptance letter came I felt both ecstatic and terrified.
The medical school curriculum and examinations challenged me. I succeeded with the support of numerous faculty and learning adaptations. Once I reached the clinical years, I found that the level of patient care I provided was not at all negatively affected by my disability. In fact, my ability to relate to patients with newfound disabilities was often improved because of the experience. To my surprise I also received glowing evaluations in realms of patient care, communication, and medical problem solving.
I have chosen to pursue a career in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, also known as Physiatry. This specialty focuses on the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of disorders that produce temporary or permanent functional impairment. This specialty is unique in that it focuses on the function of the whole patient, maximizing independence in one’s chosen societal role.
The fact that I am focusing my medical career on caring for individuals with disabilities is no coincidence. Every person has the right to live up to his or her fullest potential and ability. I have committed my life’s work to helping people do so.
Erika Erlandson, MD
University of Kentucky
Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
University of Kentucky, MD 2009
University of Michigan BA, 2004 - Psychology Major