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Quadriplegic student completes long journey by getting M.D.

June 5, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ James Post makes his hospital rounds in a wheelchair with an assistant to hold his stethoscope to the chests of his patients. Post’s ears and his mind work fine. It is just his legs and his arms that don’t.

Some patients are surprised to see a 26-year-old quadriplegic as their doctor-in-training. Several medical schools rejected him.

Despite all that, he graduates today from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

``My own experiences as a patient _ I can take those and use what I learned, empathy and a real understanding of what it means to be really sick, to be a better doctor,″ he said.

Frances Hall of the Association of American Medical Colleges said she knows of least two other quadriplegics who have graduated from medical school in recent years. But she cautioned that the degree of paralysis varies widely from case to case.

A diving accident at Boy Scout camp at age 14 left Post paralyzed from the neck down. He cannot move his legs and has only partial use of his arms.

He was rejected by 10 medical schools, including every one in his home state of Pennsylvania, despite finishing in the top 10 percent of his college class, where he was pre-med. All cited his disability.

He kept trying, fighting on television and in the press, and found supporters.

``As many physicians as were opposed to this, I had as many in favor of it,″ he said. ``They said, `Obviously you can’t be a surgeon, but there are many other things to do with an M.D. degree.‴

One backer was Dr. Herbert Schaumburg, chairman of neurology at Albert Einstein. They met during the taping of a talk show, where Schaumburg told him about a student who was injured in his third year at Einstein and went on to finish.

Post applied to Einstein and was accepted _ on condition he hire a physician’s assistant to help examine patients.

``It wasn’t a unanimous vote,″ said Dr. Michael Reichgott, associate dean at Albert Einstein. ``The usual concerns were, given his physical and limited abilities, can he do the things he needs to do to be a successful physician?″

He hired an assistant at $50,000 a year and got a lot help from his wife, Saretha.

She attended class with him for the first two years and helped take notes. She even dissected a cadaver under his instruction. She also literally opened doors for him.

``I went to help out with notes, and the doors weren’t electrical,″ she said. Now she is home more with their 19-month-old son, James.

On his rounds, his assistant is his hands _ touching a patient to find where and how sharp the pain is, shining an otoscope into a patient’s ear, holding up an X-ray for Post to analyze.

``The only surprise I ever saw was in some elderly patients,″ Post said. ``They see a young healthy guy in a wheelchair and they would say, `Oh what happened to you, dear?′ And I would just tell them I was in an accident when I was young but I’m fine now.″

He paid for school from a $5 million settlement from the Boy Scouts; Post was paralyzed in a shallow water dive required for a lifesaving badge.

(Despite his injury, he went on to become an Eagle Scout, a top rank fewer than 2 percent of Scouts reach, by organizing a fund-raising drive to build an electric lift at his church for the elderly and disabled.)

The medical school made a few adjustments to accommodate Post. The dissection table was lowered a bit and a desk built for him in the lecture hall.

He plans to choose a specialty that does not require much physical dexterity. He is weighing both endrocinology _ the study of hormones and glands _ or nephrology _ the study of kidneys.

``I’m going into internal medicine, which does require some hands-on work, but it also requires a lot of mental work,″ he said.

Post has already been offered a job. He begins his internship at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York next month.