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A doctor who survived six brain surgeries and a stroke shares a powerful message: 'I'm thankful'

After being diagnosed with Chiari malformation in 2011, Dr. Claudia Martinez underwent six brain surgeries and suffered a stroke. Now, she treats people at the same hospital where she used to be a patient.

A doctor who survived six brain surgeries and a stroke shares a powerful message: 'I'm thankful'
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Texas-based Dr. Claudia Martinez, 31, has survived six brain surgeries and a stroke. Now, she is treating people at the same hospital where she used to be a patient. Due to her own lived experiences, she is able to bring a unique perspective to her practice as a physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physician at TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital. The institute is a teaching hospital for Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Texas. The third-year resident said she was thankful for the experiences she has had, Good Morning America reports.


"You learn so many things in medical school but one of the things you don't learn is how to be a patient," Dr. Martinez said in an interview with the media outlet. "What they're feeling, what they're thinking, what their families are thinking—and we went through that for so many years, me and my mom, just navigating the medical system from the other side and seeing all the barriers we had to go over. I'm very thankful for that experience and getting to now share what I know with patients and better help them."


Just a few years ago, she herself was unable to walk or do everyday tasks independently. She was able to rebuild her life with the help of Dr. Lisa Wenzel, who treated her and supported her dream of pursuing medicine. Dr. Martinez said, "[Wenzel] was in charge of my entire rehab stay. She's a spinal cord injury specialist. She's been my mentor along the way and my advocate, the one who has helped me get my accommodations for medical school and now residency, and just really given me that hope that I could still be a physician even though she saw me at my lowest point."


In 2011, Dr. Martinez was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, an abnormality where portions of the brain "[extend] through the natural opening at the base of the skull," creating pressure on the brain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Typically, surgery is the only option for patients. Dr. Martinez had six brain surgeries in the span of five years, between 2012 and 2017. "The recoveries from each brain surgery got harder each time," she said. "After my first one, it was pretty OK, but then after that second one, the third, the fourth and fifth, every time it was just more and more difficult to bounce back." It was during her sixth brain surgery that she suffered a stroke.


Following her stroke, Dr. Martinez could not walk and was "unable to function from the neck down." She was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann where she underwent intensive physical, speech and occupational therapies for a year. "There was a point when I was at TIRR that I was like, 'I didn't think that I would make it here,'" she shared. "But I was very persistent, and I wanted to prove not to other people, but just to myself that I could do this. I worked harder than my classmates because I never wanted my disability or my medical illness to define me or have other people let me kind of slide by with doing less, just because I had a disability or was in the hospital so long."


Despite her difficulties, Dr. Martinez did not give up. She was able to take a year off from medical school to focus on recovery with the support of her family and medical team. Then, she finished her degree program and was matched with TIRR in spring 2020 for her residency. The resident graduated from UTHealth Houston McGovern Medical School that May. Now, Dr. Martinez wants people to know that "disabilities do not define the capability of a person." She affirmed, "Never underestimate someone with a disability. There's so much that they can do and they have so much worth to bring to the world. Sometimes we just need to have a little compassion and patience and now that I'm here being a physician, there [are] so many things that I do differently than my colleagues just because I have a disability, but that doesn't mean that I can't do the things they do."


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