​Moving Forward: John Lin, M.D.

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on August 27, 2020 # Lifestyle, Moving Forward

By John Lin, M.D.

In the summer of 1991, I had just returned from studying abroad in France and was getting ready for my senior year as an Emory University undergraduate. One afternoon, when I awoke from a nap at my parents' house, I had the most excruciating pain between my shoulder blades. Within minutes, my legs felt weak. Soon, I was not able to arise from the floor. The local community hospital in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, suspected an arterial venous malformation rupture, which was confirmed 12 hours later by their mobile MRI scanner. By then, I was completely paralyzed from my armpits down. A perfunctory decompressive laminectomy surgical procedure to evacuate the epidural blood clot on my spinal cord did not improve my condition.John Lin

It was emotionally difficult to accept the prognosis from the operating surgeon and the spine physician in charge of my rehabilitation at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia. My complete paraplegia was very unlikely to improve, and that the injury was, for all intents and purposes, permanent. Over the next weeks to months, my thoughts were dominated by the cannot's": I cannot go jogging, swimming at the beach, hiking up the mountain, etc. My nightmares were filled with images of attempting to move my legs in vain, being stuck in place.

Going through rehabilitation with others recovering from spinal cord injuries was helpful. Sharing tips on functional recovery and processing psychological adaptation took some time. One day, I woke with a dream of myself using a wheelchair. I realized then that I had finally come to terms with using a wheelchair as a new way of living. In retrospect, the finality of a permanent, complete injury was a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to have a definitive answer early on, however difficult it was. In turn, it allowed me to bring closure on one part of my life and redirect my focus to a new life. I realized then that, as interesting as quantum mechanics and thermal dynamics were to me, my mission in life was to give back the new life that others had given me. I decided to pursue a career in the practice of medicine.

Applying late, I was fortunate that the Medical University of South Carolina in my hometown admitted me as the first incoming freshman to be functional with the assistance of a wheelchair. That was just one year after my injury. The most challenging part was the first year of medical school. Neither I nor the school knew what to expect. I was still adapting to an evolving body dealing with urinary tract infections, exacerbating spasticity, and bowel and bladder dysfunction, while trying to find the 25th hour of the day to cram in that extra morsel of knowledge required. Fortunately, I had a very supportive family, schoolmates, professors, and school administrative personnel to problem-solve each step of the way. What I perceived to be inaccessible old school buildings with staircases became newly erected ramps and accessible bathrooms. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act may have facilitated some of the transformations, the many smiling faces that made medical school accessible for me were reflective of nothing short of humanity at its best.

Going into medical school, I wanted to become a rehabilitation physician. Going through medical school, I came to love the practice of internal medicine. Combining both sub-specialties, I entered a five-year post-graduation training program at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. At the time, it was the largest institution offering the combined sub-specialty residency training program. Five years after sustaining my permanent, complete paraplegia, I found myself facing an entirely different set of challenges – living alone with no one to lean or depend on, but rather, having others whose lives depended on me. At times, the long days at work decided whether to use the limited time at home to eat, sleep, or shower a difficult one knowing that only one of the three was possible. During those years, even instant noodles were a luxury with the limited time I had.

Fast forward a couple of decades, I now find myself back to where it all started. I am now the director of spinal cord injury medicine at Shepherd Center. I use my spinal cord injury rehabilitation medicine knowledge with the assistance of my internal medicine training to help patients with a newly injured spinal cord. Thanks to the Shepherd family members who founded Shepherd Center and treat every one of the physicians as a family member, I feel grateful for being given the opportunity to give back what once was given to me so generously. In my role, I teach students, resident physicians, and graduate fellows. Perhaps most gratifying are the rare times when I have the opportunity to mentor students and residents with disabilities, sharing with all my expertise and experiences.

These days, I don't get reminded, nor do I dwell, much on my disability. I no longer think of the "cannots." Instead, I am excited to plan on the "cans." What new cuisine do I want to discover next? What new trail around metro Atlanta do I want to explore? Where do I want to go on vacation next? What place on this planet should I plan on visiting? Much like everyone else, I think about how to be a better husband, father, friend, co-worker, physician, mentor, teacher, tennis player, and “foodie.” In essence, just like a normal person, I find joy in everyday life. I guess that was all I really wanted and now have – to be normal again.

This blog appears courtesy of Shepherd Center. Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation.