Future Reflections         Winter 2011

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A Blueprint for Success

by Tim Cordes, MD, PhD

Dr. Tim Cordes addresses the 2010 NFB convention.From the Editor: At the 2010 NFB convention in Dallas, Federationists were honored and thrilled to hear a presentation by Dr. Tim Cordes. Perhaps half a dozen blind people have ever completed medical training in the United States. Dr. Cordes is among them. In this article he shares some of the ingredients of his success.

"Dr. Cordes. Hi." Papers rustled as my next patient set down his book and rose to meet me. The last time I met him he sat quietly in the waiting room until I called. As I walked back to my office with him, my Seeing Eye® dog by my side, I noticed the smells of soap and cigarettes--one a good sign, one not so good.

We sat down and I reached for my notebook computer, placing the earphone in my ear in order to hear speech from my screen reading software. Although my patient said he was doing great, I heard him fidget with his hands and look up at the ceiling when we hit a tough topic. I pressed him on it and we decided what to do next. After he left I phoned in a prescription to his pharmacy and completed my notes. The day went on.

As a blind psychiatrist in my last year of training, I've had to learn many things along the way. We are always learning. Either we learn to limit ourselves and subscribe to negative predictions, or we learn to challenge ourselves and strive toward possibilities. How did I learn to avoid the negative predictions and keep striving?

From the beginning my family taught me that hard work and achievement were the norm for everyone. My father was a hardworking engineer. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who kept busy with volunteer work. Both of my sisters became high school class valedictorians. They left me big shoes to fill. I couldn't hope to fill them without hard work and adaptation.

In my family, the bar was set high. No one would lower it for me just because I was blind. Like my older sisters, I always had chores to do. From washing dishes to clipping weeds around the house, I was expected to help out. Even when my sisters complained about my slowness as my careful fingers found every spot of dirt on the plates, I was not excused from doing my share. I grew accustomed to the fact that sometimes participating would be a challenge.

When I was nine, I read magnified print on a closed-circuit television (CCTV). I loved summers because the school let me take the CCTV home with me. We didn't have a desk for it, so we put it on the living room floor. I would lie on my belly, looking up at the screen for hours. I vividly remember reading Lassie Come-Home one huge word at a time. It was hard, but my love of reading kept me going.

I did not see the writing on the wall (probably because it wasn't in large print!), but my parents and my teacher of the visually impaired certainly did. They recognized that my reading technique and speed were going to stand in the way of my success. I could not truly be a high achiever unless I learned Braille.

I was not eager to learn Braille, but I was used to working hard at school. I accepted Braille instruction as one more challenge. As my vision faded over the years, I came to value the skill I had been taught.

We may not always know where a given skill will come in handy. When I learned to hold the lines, planes, and angles of high school geometry in my head, I had no idea that I was building a set of skills that would help me in the study of medicine. Today my mental imaging techniques help me understand the geometric relationships within the molecules at the heart of cells and medications. I took music lessons when I was growing up, and in high school and college I studied computer programming. Later, in medical school, I wrote software that uses sound to describe the shapes of proteins. I was able to use the skills I possessed in a way I could never have foreseen.

Early success helped me realize that I could set a goal and work to achieve it step by step. When I was eleven I wanted to take part in sports as my sisters had before me. I thought that wrestling would be a good place to start. To build up my skills I wrestled with any neighbor kids I could find, and I often came in for dinner with grass-stained pants. My parents readily agreed when I told them I wanted to join the school wrestling team. If they had doubts, they never let me know.

Before the season started, my mother and I stopped by the gym to visit with the coach, who was still in college.

"Tim wants to wrestle, and he doesn't see well," my mother explained.

"Okay," the coach said. "No problem. The school for the blind has some great wrestlers. There are a few special rules we can use. It will be fine."

At wrestling practices I did pushups, drills, and exercises alongside the sighted kids. We used only a few adaptations. I received some extra one-on-one help when I learned new wrestling techniques. I ran with a partner for longer warm-up runs or jogged in place when collisions would have been imminent in our small gym. During an actual match the only modification was the rule that my opponent and I never broke physical contact. That was it.

Soon enough it was time for me to test what I had learned. My first match ended with me pinning my opponent. I had my share of wins and losses, and I finished the season by winning the local tournament. With a dream, hard work, and appropriate modifications, I had become a 72-pound victor, and I liked it.

The pattern of dreaming, hard work, and success was set.

The same pattern has allowed me to reach the place where I find myself today. As a doctor of medicine I can help my patients with their own challenges and changes.

With high expectations, a dream becomes the blueprint for a life. With hard work we build our dreams into reality, using the substance of our skills. We all have chances and choices about our work--which blueprints to follow, which tools to use, and ultimately, what we learn along the way.

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