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The Other Side of the Stethoscope

Physicians, for all their knowledge about health, sometimes fall prey to serious illness and injury—and find themselves on the receiving end of the stethoscope. Or individuals with experience as a patient sometimes decide to enter medicine—and become the person wielding the stethoscope. In either case, their patients often benefit.

By Paula Hartman Cohen

The nightmare runs like this: One minute you're schussing down a black-diamond ski trail, and the next you can't feel anything south of your neck. Or one minute you're stepping out of the shower to get ready for a big date, and the next, as you glance at yourself in the mirror, you gasp. What is that lump?

Every day, physicians see patients who have actually lived bad dreams like these. That's their job. But what happens when a physician experiences the nightmare?

"No one thinks such things are going to happen to them," says Dr. Joseph O'Donnell, senior advising dean at Dartmouth Medical School and an oncologist who practices at the Dartmouth-affiliated White River Junction, Vt., VA Medical Center.

When "such things" do happen, does a medical professional handle serious illness or injury any differently than the average patient? Is an ailing or disabled physician treated differently by patients and colleagues than an able caregiver—perhaps even shunned? Do the physical and psychic demands of medicine make ill health an unbearable added burden? Or can illness, instead, be an asset to a physician? The answers to these questions are, of course, highly individual.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 738,000 practicing physicians in the U.S. as of 2000. It's hard to know what percentage of them have, say, battled cancer, lost the use of a limb, or lack the ability to hear. The number of disabled medical students is a little easier to pin down. There are some 69,000 U.S. medical students—about two-tenths of one percent of whom, according to a recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, are reported as being disabled (or roughly 136 at any given time). But, added the article, not only do schools frequently underreport such data, but it can be hard to define just what qualifies as a disability. "Disability is mostly in the eye of the beholder," wrote Dr. Nicholas Walker, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians with

Disabilities, in an electronic post responding to the article.

Consider not being able to hear, or walk, or use your hands. Is it still possible to succeed in medical school or to practice medicine? Indeed it is. Dartmouth has trained students who are deaf, students who have survived life-threatening diseases, and even one of the nation's handful of quadriplegic medical students. It also has, among its faculty ranks, some clinicians whose own lives have been affected by serious illness or injury.

Some of their infirmities are obvious, while others are invisible. Some students and faculty prefer not to discuss their situation, while others appreciate the opportunity to share their experiences, in the hope of helping a stranger or a colleague who may someday face a similar challenge.

Most of the half-dozen alumni and faculty who shared their stories with Dartmouth Medicine voiced surprise at the roadblock

that life put before them. But virtually all expressed gratitude and joy that they survived and are now able to share what they learned.

Here are the stories of six remarkable physicians associated with Dartmouth Medical School. Perhaps the recounting of their lives will encourage other members of the DMS community who face similar challenges. Without question, their courage will inspire everyone.

A perfect life
Cathy Conry-Cantilena, DMS '86

When she was in her late thirties, Dr. Cathy Conry-Cantilena was "living a dream" in a leafy, upscale Maryland suburb. A 1986 graduate of DMS, proud mother of four children (then aged 14, 12, 7, and 18 months), and wife of a physician (Dr. Louis Cantilena), she could hardly wait to get up in the morning and go to one of her two part-time jobs.

She remembers working "like a maniac" as medical director for the transfusion

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Paula Hartman Cohen, now a Massachusetts-based freelancer, spent almost 20 years writing for Newsday on Long Island. She has also worked as the science news editor for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and as the director of communications for the Hospice Care Network of Westbury, N.Y. The photoillustrations accompanying this feature are the work of Jennifer Durgin, based on photographs by Ernie Branson, Flying Squirrel Graphics, Jon Gilbert Fox, Mark Washburn, and Keith Weller.

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