Local Doctors Overcome Adversity and Inspire

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One of the services offered by WVTF, our National Public Radio affiliate, is little known:  Reading for the visually handicapped.  On a special receiver supplied free of charge by the station, those who cannot see can listen to recorded broadcasts of newspapers, magazines and books, among other things.  The programs are available around the clock, recorded by volunteers.  In that pleasant role, I recently read a remarkable book:  White Coat, White Cane.  A Blind Doctor’s Remarkable Triumph Against Incredible Odds, by David Hartman, MD and Bernard Asbell.

As many in our area know, Dr. Hartman is a prominent psychiatrist who has practiced here for 28 years.  Less well known is that he was born sighted, but from irreparable congenital eye defects lost all his vision at age eight.  The book recounts vividly what that experience was like as a child, but more importantly, how he overcame it with the enormous help of his family, his friends, and a handful of special teachers.  He became interested in studying medicine and the book outlines his struggle to gain entrance to a medical school.  There had been no blind person in modern times who became a doctor.  Despite an outstanding academic record at prestigious Gettysburg College, he was denied even an interview at most of the medical schools to which he applied.  Harvard, Yale, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and others would not consider him, although he would have been accepted to any of those had it not been for his blindness.

When he had been turned down by all medical schools but one, he nearly gave up hope . . . but he didn’t.  Temple University in Philadelphia accepted him and the rest, as they say, is history that David Hartman made.  ABC Television produced a two-hour special, Journey from Darkness, about his quest.  My family and I happened to watch it, never knowing that years later we would meet Dr. Hartman and owe him such a personal debt of gratitude.

Bert Spetzler, an orthopedic surgeon who became a quadriplegic as a result of a bicycle accident two years ago, suggested that I ought to record David Hartman’s book for WVTF.  David loaned me a copy and I learned from it the same things I have learned from Bert Spetzler:  Adversity can come upon anyone, sometimes in a shattering moment.  None are invulnerable to that, but what happens afterwards is critical.

Both of these physicians have approached their seemingly insurmountable problems with characteristics that have transformed their lives.  How easy it would have been to become bitter and depressed, but they, as many others like them, chose a different path.  Rather than give up and give in, they reached up and reached out to what they might become in spite of their misfortune.  Dr. Hartman is Section Chief of Adult Outpatient Psychiatry at The Carilion Clinic, a position that speaks for his years of excellence.  Dr. Spetzler has, with amazing grit and determination, learned to walk, to drive a specially equipped van, and has returned to a job that uses his medical knowledge in aiding others with disabilities.

While every adversity brings its own special challenges there are four things that are commonly found in those who move beyond their tragedy.  As C.S. Lewis said, everyone needs something to hope for, something to do, and someone to love.  Those three coupled with a sense of optimism have helped countless disabled persons successfully move on with their lives even under the worst of adverse circumstances.

We are entering the Thanksgiving season and most of us will pay lip service to being grateful for all the good things that have happened to us.  That’s not hard to do when all is going well.  What about those who have suffered real adversity?  There is no shortage of those with economic times being what they are, but financial distress hardly compares with those living with severe physical handicaps.  In circumstances like those, giving up surely must be a challenge to be faced each day.

This Thanksgiving it’s important to remember, and not in a casual way, all the things for which we are grateful.  Among these, one of the most important is a mind that can conceive the nature of our gifts and use them for others.  As long as we have that ability, there is always a place for thankfulness.