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Blind Medical Student Faces Skeptics, Critics

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2000.

POMONA - When Jeffrey Lawler took his exam in human anatomy, a cadaver lay in front of him, its surface bristling with 50 small flags marking bits of flesh and muscle and bone. He had to identify each one in order to pass, and he couldn't see any of it.

But he could feel his instructor's eyes on the backs of his hands as he reached out and began the exam. Lawler's fingers deftly probed tiny nerves while his mind visualized the paths they took throughout the human body. Reduced to its essentials, the body is simply a collection of muscle A connecting to bone B, all of it intertwined with vessels and arteries, laced with nerve. It's a schematic, and once you learn it, you can see it. Whether your eyes work or not.

Lawler, 39, is studying osteopathic medicine at Western University of Health Sciences' College of Osteopathic Medicine. He has a 3.8 grade point average. He is blind. And there are people who don't think he has the right to be here.

When he was admitted to school last year, reaction ranged from skepticism among faculty and staff to outraged screeds sent in from alumni. Some students questioned the idea of a blind medical student.

Hard-core opponents won't speak on the record. But Brenda Premo, founding director of the university's Centre for Disability Issues and the Health Professions, is familiar with the arguments. A national advocate for the disabled who was director of the California State Department of Rehabilitation, Premo has spent her career fighting these types of attitudes.

Critics wondered how a blind physician can evaluate a skin rash, read an EKG or diagnose a patient if he's not able to see the patient's facial expression? Why are resources being used to provide special support for a person who obviously can't function in such a profession?

"For God's sake, tell me how is a blind person going to diagnose the myriad of disease that REQUIRE EYESIGHT? This person is not qualified and most likely ... will not be able to meet the minimum standards of the first two years of medical school or subsequent rotations," wrote a recent WUHS graduate in two e-mails protesting Lawler's presence. "The resources expended in the effort to accommodate some sort of training could be used to train three to five more physicians. I'm afraid that you will dilute this person's education and [he] will be an ineffective member of any medical team." It was a reaction that Hoyt Smith, director of media relations, did not expect.

'It's surprising when you hear that from educated people. With our reputation here, with our background, it's surprising to hear these things," Smith said. University officials responded with education, profiling Lawler in the school's publications and magazines, and finding examples of blind physicians reaching back to the 9th century. For his part, Lawler, a native of Denver simply studies and plans his future. He will educate by example.

"Jeff doesn't want to be superman," Premo said. "He wants to be a medical student."

For some on campus, exposure to Lawler has been key to them viewing him as an individual, Premo said. When criticism of him comes from students, they tend to be upper-classmen who don't encounter him. His peers think he's Einstein.

Christine Severance, 29, a first-year student studying osteopathic medicine, met Lawler during orientation and eventually became his friend. When a close relative died and she missed a week of school, Lawler provided emotional support and helped her catch up on missed studies.

"The students have really rallied as they've gotten to know him and seen his capabilities," she said. "I think some people might be a little bit skeptical, but I think they're closed minded."

Questions on his abilities will always follow him, Lawler said. His best response is to become the skilled, compassionate physician he wants to be, establishing his own practice and take life as it comes."I view my life as educating," Lawler said. "Everything I do now, I'm educating toward the abilities of myself and everybody, disability or not."

Lawler applied to several medical schools, and interviewed at a few of them. Only Western University offered him a student slot. University president Philip Pumerantz had created its new disability center just before Lawler's application came in. If Lawler met the qualifications needed for a medical education, Pumerantz expected Premo to follow federal guidelines and develop whatever reasonable accommodations were needed to help him in school.

"We don't admit students with disabilities," Pumerantz said. "We admit qualified applicants, some of whom may have disabilities. We treat each student as an individual."

When retinitis pigmentosa strikes, it eats away at the retina until the world is reduced to a tunnel. Total blindness is often the result. Lawler was 24 when the disease struck, an athletic science junkie with a job in the aerospace industry, testing the vibration and shock limits of supersecret "black boxes," which were probably used in the military, he said.

It took a decade for him to lose his sight entirely. During that time, he gave up driving and partying with friends. He watched his mother, Evelyn, fight breast cancer. He tumbled down the rocky pits of depression.

It was the most horrible time in his life. But it was the time that forged him.Lawler had always known what he wanted. But no one in his family had ever gone to college. The old Lawler never truly tried to get to where he wanted to be.

The new Lawler would. 'Being a doctor is the ultimate way to help people dealing with life and death issues," he said. "It's taken my blindness to make me focus and bring more discipline to my life."

In December 1993, Lawler was declared legally blind. That month, his mother died. But her fight for life inspired his drive to become a physician. "My Mom didn't give up," Lawler said. His Christian faith also played a role. "It's allowed me to restore my faith in God," he said. "I don't want to be blind, but I want to be where I'm at. I'm blessed that whatever I need to do, I call upon whatever is within me. Every day I'm becoming more and more like me, like the person God wanted me to be."

Lawler enrolled in the Colorado School for the Blind. There he met his wife, Sandy Rainwater-Lawler. She had a son, Christopher, and she was blind.

She had already gone through the difficult adjustment he wrestled with, and he could always talk to her about his fears and frustrations. Lawler said she was key to his being able to work toward his goal.

In him, Rainwater-Lawler found a determination that mirrored her own stubbornness, she said. Being stubborn is not always a negative quality.

It can help a person push through barriers constantly imposed by others."There has been some negative feedback from people that this is not very realistic," she said. "But no matter what is said, Jeff continues to be driven and work toward his ultimate goal in life."

Not that it's easy, she notes. Rainwater-Lawler, a disabilities services specialist, lives in Colorado while her husband is in school in Pomona. It means huge phone bills, bouts of loneliness and having to work around the pressure this puts on their relationship, she said. 'But I believe that every person should have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams in life," she said. "It was difficult at the beginning, but we all adjust in life, and we do what we can for the one we love."

In 1994, Lawler enrolled in the University of Colorado at Denver, where he is remembered by Charles Ferguson, chair of the health careers advisory committee. He was Lawler's premed advisor as well as one of his professors. Ferguson remembered how Lawler showed up three months before class started in search of textbooks, so he could have them recorded by a reader. He was always proactive, designing methods to learn the material.

In a very short time, Ferguson's skepticism about Lawler's ability to function in the visually oriented major of biology with a minor in chemistry faded. He needed no special treatment or extra time to handle the work. 'I would walk into class sometimes and I would see him mentoring the other students," Ferguson said. "He was teaching them how to close their eyes and feel things. I could hand this kid any bone, without saying anything, and he would know what it was."

Lawler's grades put him within the top percentile of the entire class, Ferguson said. But on top of his critical thinking ability, Lawler also demonstrated other skills crucial to a physician, an ability to listen, talk, put people at ease."I think he'll make a tremendous physician," Ferguson said. "I would go to him in a heartbeat, and I can't say that of some of the students who come through here." When it was time to offer Lawler up to medical schools, Ferguson had no problem writing strong recommendation letters telling admissions folks to take a hard look at his outstanding academic record.

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