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Disability Strengthens His Passion for Medicine

Man with cerebral palsy is studying internal medicine, pediatrics. He strives to develop a 'magical relationship' with his patients.

May 18, 2003|Joe Milicia | Associated Press Writer

AKRON, Ohio — First-year medical resident John Melville hurries through the halls of Akron General Medical Center in staggered strides. A 57-year-old woman with stroke symptoms has just arrived.

As critical care specialist Dr. Darell Heiselman explains the situation, Melville keeps in perfect step, even though he walks with his left leg bent slightly inward, feet at odd angles and upper body tilted slightly to the left.

He has cerebral palsy, but his determination, sense of humor and unrivaled optimism are all qualities that have helped him become a resident in internal medicine and pediatrics.

Without the disability, his sister Aliea Melville said, "he'd be a different person than he is today. It created this stubborn nature in him to not accept 'no' and not care what anybody says."

Melville, 27, a San Diego native, is limited physically, but not mentally. His speech is slightly garbled, but not difficult to understand.

Each year, about 10,000 babies born in the United States develop cerebral palsy, a disorder of movement or coordination caused by an abnormality of the brain. According to the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, almost 70% have other disabilities, primarily mental retardation.

At birth, doctors told Melville's parents he would have an IQ of about 50. He went on to earn nearly a straight-A average at Brigham Young University.

"He looked bright-eyed and sweet to us, so we didn't believe or want to believe he would have those type of difficulties," said his mother, Candy Melville of Palmdale, Calif.

When he was a year old and still not holding his head up, he began physical therapy -- seven times a day for two years.

It was the only special treatment that the second oldest of the six Melville children would get from the family.

Aliea Melville, 23, of Chino Hills, Calif., recalls when her brother had to baby-sit his younger siblings after surgery on his legs. They wouldn't behave, so he threatened to run them over.

"He would chase us down the hall in his wheelchair," she said. "He always found a way."

Despite high grades, Melville at first had difficulty getting into medical school.

"I had one school who flat out told me, 'We don't want a handicapped student,' " he said.

He eventually was accepted at five schools, choosing UC San Diego.

In Akron General's intensive care unit, Melville grabbed the hands of patient Sharon West and told her to squeeze, trying to determine how a possible stroke was affecting the left and right sides of her brain.

"Come on, you're squeezing like a girl," he said.

"I am a girl," West piped up, laughing.

West warmed to Melville quickly, saying that his tone of concern for her was reassuring.

"He just had great contact. He was very personable," she said. "And I don't like a lot of doctors."

Dr. James Dougherty, chairman of medical education at Akron General, said Melville, the hospital's first disabled resident, has an intangible gift.

"He can bond with patients very quickly," he said. "Within a short period of time, the patients don't focus on his disability but focus on him as a person."

Melville said it's important to care for the patient and try to recognize their suffering.

"I can make them feel cared for," he said. "That becomes the basis for a magical relationship in which they trust me."

After visiting another patient, he sat in a chair, his hand balled in a fist, pen jutting out between his middle and ring fingers as he took notes on a clipboard.

Writing is difficult. He jokes that he aced the bad handwriting course in medical school.

He's also quick to acknowledge any limitations that he has as a doctor. "I write slower. I talk slower. I examine patients slower," he said.

After sticking himself twice in medical school, he no longer handles needles or other sharp objects.

Sometimes he falls down in the hospital hallways.

"He just kind of picks himself back up," said Dr. Lynn Drab, a fourth-year resident. "I think it's sometimes disconcerting to the people around us. But he laughs and jumps back up and reassures us that he's all right."

Sometimes he'll quip: "Oops. Brain damage."

But Melville is also a realist.

He doesn't like it when people tell disabled children what he calls "the great lie."

"The great lie is, 'You can do anything you want to,' " Melville said. "I can't go play first base for the Cleveland Indians. Well ... maybe the Cleveland Indians."

He prefers what he says is "the great truth."

"I believe everyone has something that is what I call a passion," he said, "something you can spend your whole life doing and never want for anything else."

Melville recently became engaged to a writer of children's books, and the two are planning an August wedding. He said his future with her may be in Alaska, caring for patients in one of the many rural communities that are sorely in need of doctors.

"Medicine is talking to people and finding out what their problems are," he said. "That's what I'm going to spend the better part of my life doing. I love it so much."

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