Medical student thinks his learning disability will make him a better doctor

Carolyn Morris
Shine On Blogger
Shine On

We accept our doctor's impairment when it comes to handwriting. We strain to make sense of the prescription he or she hands us, but don't think much else about it. But what would we think if our doctor struggled to read?

It might just make for a better doctor, according to third-year University of British Columbia medical student, Daniel Heffner. He has overcome his learning disability so well that he's on his way to becoming a doctor.

In an upcoming article for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Heffner argues that his fight against a major reading impairment gives him more empathy for his patients.

"When I see the new challenges and struggles my patients face in tackling their new diagnoses, addictions and disabilities," he writes, "I'm reminded of my personal struggle in tackling my disability."

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When diagnosed with a severe reading disability at age 12, Heffner concluded that he would be able to succeed, but that it would take enormous effort.

"What takes the average person five minutes to read takes me thirty," he writes. "Reading for me is like trying to sprint in water."

He remembers his father crying when reading his junior high-school report card. Heffner had worked so hard. He'd dedicated his nights and weekends to studying. And he barely scraped by.

Lawrence Barns, president and CEO of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario says that although Heffner would surely have to work incredibly hard to get through medical school with his disability, he wouldn't be the only person with learning disabilities to become a high-achiever.

"We've got kids with learning disabilities doing engineering degrees, medical degrees," says Barns. "People get through as best they can."

While years ago, students with learning disabilities were still being steered toward trade schools, more and more universities are geared to assist with their specific needs. And many are excelling.

"If you look at the stats you see that someone with a learning disability is normally of above-average intelligence," says Barns. "A lot of the times that's why it becomes diagnosed, because of their own frustration."

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But he admits that there is a stigma out there. And he imagines that dealing with that stigma could make a person more understanding of others.

"If you had a label stuck on you all your life," he says, "you tend not to be as judgmental."

For Heffner, being misunderstood has given him the resolve to be a better doctor.

"Just as my disability was at times not understood by those in charge of my education," he writes. "I feel the frustration [my patients] feel when their health care goals and challenges are not properly understood by those who care for them."

"What once seemed like such a burden now serves as my greatest asset in being compassionate towards my patients. It makes me human."

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