April 14, 2011

Spinning Wheels: Lessons on Disability

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Imagine, for a minute: white coats, beeping machines, tubes and needles. Do pleasant thoughts come to mind? Probably not; under almost any circumstance, navigating the floors of New York-Presbyterian hospital is daunting and overwhelming for patients and visitors. As first-year medical students, we are still learning how to master the “run-walk” to get from one wing of the hospital to another at breakneck speed. Recently, we experienced an entirely different perspective at a pace that slowed us down quite a bit; we navigated the same vast expanse of a hospital from the seat of a wheelchair.

Thankfully for us clumsy first-year M.D. students, our time in the wheelchair was limited to an hour.  And it was a tough hour: scraped knuckles, getting stuck in doorways and sore arm muscles from pushing ourselves up ramps was just the beginning. Try getting the attention of someone behind a ticket-validation window that is several feet above your head.  Or how about getting over a door-curb, past a heavy door and into a stall to use the bathroom?  All while people are watching.

If this building, specifically designed for the care of those who may be facing physical and emotional ailments, is difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, one can only imagine the challenges that are a part of daily life for those with disabilities or chronic illnesses. The physical challenges are especially intimidating, and it was amazing that accessibility was so dramatically compromised in, of all places, one of the best hospitals in the nation. On top of these obstacles, people with disabilities must also deal with emotional challenges. In my brief hour in a wheelchair, I received open stares and looks of pity. I was completely ignored by some while others seemed to jump at the chance to help me without even asking. I desired to remain independent, but I also had to accept the help of others. These are difficult challenges that, for many, are a part of daily life.

It is far too easy for us to take our physical abilities for granted. How simple it is for us to complain about the walk to the Vet School (granted, it is tough when Ithaca decides to throw some sideways snow/sleet at our faces);  but imagine navigating the Arts Quad in a wheelchair after a recent snow. It’s important to realize that a classmate’s ailments may not be so evident at first glance, either.  Your new lab partner in Gen Chem may be in excruciating pain from rheumatoid arthritis. The guy who just joined your intramural soccer team may have diabetes. Your study group partner could have missed your last meeting because of a depressive episode. The list goes on, but the suffering and challenges that many of our friends, colleagues and classmates face may be more common than you think and remain a daily struggle for many.

So what do you do if you see someone who may be disabled? If you have a friend or family member who was recently diagnosed with a chronic ailment? Or, what if you have a friend who is silently suffering with a chronic or even short-term illness or disability, but you aren’t sure how to broach the subject?

In a word: listen.

This is the constant advice on bedside manner that we receive as medical students. Listening allows you to be supportive to those who may need your help and assistance, physically or emotionally. It may be hard to gauge how someone is feeling; they may be having a terrible day and feeling depressed, or they may be in nearly unbearable pain, so be sure not to take a harsh response as a personal affront to you. It may also be difficult to know whether or not someone feels comfortable talking about a disease or illness. The best way to be helpful, and to decide how receptive someone may be to further assistance from you, is to listen.

You may not always say the “right” thing to encourage or comfort someone, but the most important aspect to keep in mind is to respect that person’s wishes. If someone insists that they do not want your help, respect that and allow him or her the opportunity to try that task on his or her own. But you can still be there for backup and support. This can apply in so many scenarios, relating to disabilities and beyond: from offering your friend who broke his or her ankle a ride to offering emotional support to a classmate who seems depressed.

Cornell can be a beautiful campus with so many opportunities, but this does not come without challenges, both physical and mental, when navigating the hill.  So take a minute to walk in the shoes — or wheel in the chair — of someone you know who may be facing hurdles and difficulties. Give them the space to achieve their goals, but never be too far behind to offer support.

Julia Rosenberg is a first-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College. She may be reached at jmr2008@med.cornell.edu. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Julia Rosenberg