Meghan Wilson's impossible dream to be doctor comes true
Paralyzed 17 years ago, she gets her M.D. from Pitt Monday.
May 19, 2013 12:00 PM
A 1996 skiing accident left Meghan Wilson with quadriplegia.
A 1996 skiing accident left Meghan Wilson with quadriplegia. On Monday, she'll graduate from Pitt's School of Medicine with an M.D./Ph.D.
Meghan Wilson chats with her personal aide, Laura Leigh Watson, 20, on their way to a meeting at the School of Medicine in April.
Arthur Levine, the dean at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school, hugs Meghan after their meeting in Dr. Levine's Oakland office.
By David Templeton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Regaining consciousness, Meghan Wilson found herself sliding across the ice on her stomach and feeling a buzzing pins-and-needles feeling, shoulders down, similar to a funny bone being bumped. The evaporating tingle was the last sensation she has felt below her shoulders since Dec. 26, 1996.
Along with brother Russ, the energized 17-year-old high school senior had taken the final run down a Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort slope in West Virginia, deciding near the bottom to ski over a mogul, which proved larger than expected. Her best guess is, the mogul caused the tip of a ski to fly back and strike her forehead, knocking her out long enough to prevent her from breaking her fall. Apparently she landed on her stomach, her body arcing, hyper-extending her neck. It broke her fifth vertebrae, crushing the spinal cord.
"I think I'm paralyzed," she told Russ, who had rushed to her side.
Quadriplegia can't deter her dream of practicing medicine
Meghan Wilson, who has quadriplegia, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with her M.D. and Ph.D. (Video by Andrew Rush; 5/19/2013)
In an instant her life took a full detour. She was paralyzed, eventually able to move her shoulders and elbow but without feelings in her arms or use of her hands. She would have to adjust physically and psychologically -- and even relearn how to breathe.
In the 17 years since the accident, Meghan has had her fill of struggles and frustrations in life. But Monday will bring joy -- the exhilaration of achieving a personal goal that few thought possible for someone with quadriplegia.
Meghan, 33, will graduate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine with an M.D./Ph.D degree. Awarded her Ph.D. in 2011, she will receive an M.D. degree and complete the demanding Pitt medical scientist training program after nine years. "I'm so thankful," she said, "that Pitt gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream."
Acceptance to medical school for a fully paralyzed student is rare but not unprecedented, said Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs for the Association of American Medical Colleges. "I take my hat off to her. Congratulations to her and to the institution that accepted her."
Pitt officials are heralding her unique combination of skills and experience as holding potential to improve the quality of life for others with spinal-cord injuries.
"I'm just astounded by all of the challenges that she's surmounted by doing an extremely solid job in this demanding program," said Richard A. Steinman, director of Pitt's medical scientist training program, noting her "intellectual, medical and research skills."
Pushing the envelope
Getting into Pitt was an emotional pendulum.
Meghan, near the top of her class at Gaither High School in Tampa, Fla., was a gymnast turned competitive spring-board diver, a student actor in musical theater who also enjoyed doing artwork. She was in the math league and served as president of a service club that, among other things, collected food for the poor.
The accident midway through her senior year seemed to derail her career plans to become a doctor. In the hospital's Intensive Care Unit after the accident, and on a ventilator for seven weeks, she worked to cope with her disability by telling herself, "No matter what happens with my body, I still have control of my mind.
"I hoped that if I had the right attitude, I would be able to deal with anything," she said.
The first-year focus was rehabilitation and psychologically orienting herself to paralysis. She landed scholarships to the University of Florida, two hours from her Tampa home. Her mother, Diane Wilson, helped her and her assistants settle into a routine of care -- she has to be fed, washed and dressed, among other daily tasks.
Thinking a medical degree was impossible to achieve, she received a degree in neurobiology with plans to conduct research.
But with her graduation approaching, her organic chemistry professor, James A. Deyrup, out of the blue told her, "I see you as a physician."
She confessed to a long desire to be a physician "to help people in a direct and immediate way," and continue with her research. After some debate about being a doctor, her original career path was back on track.
"That gave me permission to consider being a physician," Meghan said. "It allowed me to say, 'Maybe I can go to med school.' "
The first giant step was getting into an M.D./Ph.D program to allow her to treat patients and do research. Such programs typically accept the most highly qualified medical school applicants. For example, Pitt medical school in 2011-12 received 4,912 applications and 17 percent were offered interviews for a class of 150 -- about 3 percent of the total applicants. The MST program accepts only eight to 10 students from an elite pool of 400 medical school applicants, for a 2 to 2.5 percent acceptance rate.
With top MCAT scores and grades bolstered by successful research, she sent applications to 12 medical schools with a personal statement explaining her quadriplegia. She was granted an interview at three medical schools. A fourth granted an interview but rescinded it on claims her disability meant that she could not meet admission standards.
Two did not accept her after her interview. One school did admit her to its M.D./Ph.D program, but rescinded the offer when the medical school refused to admit her.
Unlocking the door
But Meghan is stubborn. Just because she uses a wheelchair doesn't mean she's going to be pushed around.
In 2003, she adopted Plan B.
She sent 45 letters to medical school and admissions deans, along with the directors of the medical scientist training programs of 15 medical schools before sending an application to each. The letter explained that she would hire and train medical assistants to assist under her direction during patient examinations. Her strategy outlined a path to success as a doctor and researcher, while reflecting determination and commitment.
"You have to be tough," she said. "You have to be prepared to prove yourself over and over again. Physicians rightfully must be skeptical. You have to be at ease and confident that you can take excellent care of patients."
This time she was granted an interview at three schools. Pitt's medical school was the only one to invite her back for a second interview, this time to meet department heads and others to discuss her circumstances.
The door had edged open.
"We never have had people with quadriplegia, and I don't think any other medical school has," said Arthur Levine, Pitt medical school dean, noting her top credentials and convincing letter. "In a nanosecond I thought that she should be admitted."
Still, he called a medical faculty meeting to discuss her circumstances. He and Edward Curtis, dean of admissions at the time, spoke on her behalf.
But one faculty member arose in opposition to Meghan's admission, saying she couldn't imagine going to a physician unable to do a physical exam.
Then Timothy R. Billiar, the chairman of Pitt's Department of Surgery, stood to address the faculty. "The best physicians operate with one organ -- the brain. There are many ways she can contribute," he said. Dr. Billiar's statements swayed the faculty "and that was that," Dr. Levine said.
Education by exhaustion
Now the real work began. For nearly a decade she underwent intense education and clinical rounds, while also doing advanced research for her dissertation. Getting through medical school has been described as the educational equivalent of having a hose put in your mouth and being told to swallow when the faucet is turned on.
Once in Pittsburgh, Meghan had to hire personal aides and eventually medical assistants, usually Pitt nursing students or physician assistants, to examine patients under her direction and describe the results to her. They would put the stethoscope into Meghan's ears then place the diaphragm on the back and chest so she could hear the patient's heart and breathing patterns. She trained the assistants with faculty help.
She has lived in a first-floor apartment with wheelchair access in Point Breeze, and travels to campus in a special van that her aide drives. She's no stranger to the Pittsburgh cultural scene, regularly attending concerts in Oakland and eating out with friends. Twice in the past decade she's traveled to Europe during breaks.
But her medical education has been her focus. Her dissertation, published in the journal Public Library of Science One, describes her discovery of a particular biomarker that could be used to help diagnose amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease and track its progression.
"The caliber and importance of her research project was evident, highlighting a new way to predict how this terrible disease, ALS, would or could progress in patients, and she published a first-authored paper and very well regarded study in an international science journal," Dr. Steinman said. "She did quite well with her thesis research."
Helping to develop an ethics course curriculum for the M.D./Ph.D. program, Meghan also was elected by fellow students to the Gold Humanism Honor Society, to recognize her exemplary compassion and the top patient care she provided.
After graduation, she will do a one-year internship at the Northside Medical Center in Youngstown, Ohio, before a three-year residency at the University of California, Irvine, in rehabilitation medicine. Her goal, she said, is to help patients with spinal cord injuries "to reach their maximum physical recovery and psychological adjustment to carve out a new path and build meaningful and fulfilling lives."
Crossing the finish line
Able to use her arm to place her wrist brace in the control mount on her wheelchair, Meghan travels the medical school hallways in almost daredevil fashion, while trekking along sidewalks and crossing streets in Oakland almost with the confidence of a skateboarder. Operation of her wheelchair reflects the boldness she has exhibited in pursuing her career. Her naturally shy and humble personality can be offset by intellectual confidence, her drive to achieve and obvious discomfort with ideas with which she disagrees.
Her mother, a psychotherapist, came to Pittsburgh with her in 2004. But to promote her independence, Meghan insists she live at least one hour away. Diane, who lives in Irwin, said her daughter's accomplishments required "magnificent courage, unbelievable internal strength and an indomitable spirit."
"Yes, she's brilliant but that's not what got her through this," her mother said. "She had to dig deep into her soul with spirit, strength and courage."
Meghan, in turn, expresses gratitude to Pitt for giving her a chance and going "the extra mile" with the necessary support for her to succeed.
"Going through the M.D./Ph.D. program here was incredibly hard," she said. "It was the best decision for me but I made a lot of sacrifices and had almost no personal time. It's a huge commitment but I had an amazing experience and it was totally worth it."
Her mother, two brothers, Brant Wilson of Chicago and Russ Wilson of Miami, will attend graduation. Her father and stepmother cannot attend graduation due to a medical emergency.
"I'm probably going to cry, but I will try to enjoy every second of it," Meghan said. "Now that I've made it through, there is a lot to appreciate."
Dr. Steinman said he and other Pitt officials never doubted she would succeed.
"Meghan's good humor, disposition, drive and positive attitude, all of that with all the accomplishments, is something I will never forget," Dr. Steinman said, adding that during graduation, "I'm going to be extremely proud. I'll be beaming."