The dyslexic cardiologist: MUSC doctor gives TEDxCharleston talk about his path to successful career

April 08, 2022
closeup of man in surgical cap, gown and mask looking intently at a screen
Dr. John Rhodes found a specialty that plays to his visual/spatial strengths, using imaging to visualize how to move catheters through the arteries. Photo by Sarah Pack

“John, you are going to have to accept that being a doctor is not for you.”

Thirty-some years later, those words still sting. The patronizing presumption behind them – that he just couldn’t keep up with whip-smart medical students and ought to resign himself to a job with less reading, never mind that he had always wanted to be a doctor and that he understood – really, truly understood, not simply memorized – the biochemistry and the microanatomy and the gross anatomy better than his college classmates – 30-some years later, repeating those words on a TEDxCharleston stage in front of a live audience and recalling the patronizing presumption behind them stops John Rhodes in his tracks.

His breath quivers for a moment as he swallows back a tear before continuing. Even though he knows the happy ending.

He is a doctor, thank you very much. And not just a doctor but a respected invasive cardiologist, the operations director of the Congenital Heart Disease Program at MUSC Children’s Health, a full professor in the MUSC College of Medicine, a published researcher who has led international studies, the former chief of clinical operations at Duke Children’s Heart Center and former director of cardiology at Nicklaus Children’s Health System.

It’s quite a resume for someone who scored a 1 on the reading portion of the MCAT, the Medical College Admission Test. That’s basically a gimme score for remembering to write your name on the paper.

Rhodes’ journey from undiagnosed dyslexia to the TEDxCharleston stage has not been easy. Nor has it been public.

Headshot of Dr. John Rhodes 
Dr. John Rhodes

“We don’t disclose,” Rhodes said of himself and others with learning disabilities. “We hide. Because we’re at times ridiculed or made to feel lesser than. So I've hidden my whole life.”

But as he’s gotten older, he’s come around to the idea that perhaps his story could help kids today who are struggling through school by looking at the pictures, just like he was all those years ago. After all, up to 20% of the population has dyslexia. More than 18% of high school students with specific learning disabilities – an education law term that encompasses dyslexia as well as other disorders that affect language or mathematical calculations – will end up dropping out.

The dropout rate is far worse in South Carolina – the worst in the nation at last count – with 33% of its students with specific learning disabilities leaving high school before graduation.

Rhodes said his hope was that one or two parents in the audience might hear his story and see a path ahead for their children.

“My parents – they didn’t think I could read. They didn’t think I could do school. They didn’t think I could go to college,” he said. “I think they believed that. I think parents today sometimes believe that.”

To be clear, Rhodes can read. He had half-joked with his wife, he said, that going public might mean his patients would flee in droves from the doctor with dyslexia, so he wants to be clear about that point.

“It’s not that I can’t read. It’s that I read slowly,” he said. “But I'm willing to do it. And there’s nothing I can’t read. It just takes me forever to do it.”

a man stands on a stage beneath a large screen with a red X and in front of a sign that says TEDxCharleston 
Dr. John Rhodes on the TEDxCharleston stage in March. Photo by Erin Turner / Courtesy of TEDxCharleston

Rhodes came from a family of super-smart individuals. His father and grandfather were doctors, and his mother was a nurse. His brother and sister shone academically. Rhodes is smart, too, but, surrounded by a family of the reading-inclined, it didn’t feel like it. That feeling of not measuring up, and the negative chatter of teachers and other kids, got to him. He can see how a kid with dyslexia might think it easier to drop out than to keep returning to school each day to fail.

“There are so many kids in so much more trouble than I was in. They won’t make it. They just don’t have the resources. I, at least, had resources,” he said.

Rhodes’ recollections of his reading troubles start in the fourth grade. At that point, his little first-grader brother started lapping him in reading.

The federal law mandating free appropriate public education for children with disabilities was brand new then – the ink of President Gerald Ford’s signature still wet.

Rhodes was placed in special education, where he remained until high school, but he was never diagnosed. Though dyslexia was recognized as far back as the 1870s, the reasons for it weren’t – and still aren’t completely – understood. Today, however, we know that people with dyslexia use a different part of their brains for reading than people without dyslexia, and we know that their brains have trouble connecting letter sounds to individual letters on the page. Thus, without focused training, people with dyslexia must laboriously sound out each word – a task that standardized tests don’t allocate enough time for.

When it came time for college, everyone around Rhodes had doubts – especially after his performance on the SAT.

“I totally bombed the SAT. There was no extended time. I panicked when I took it,” he said of his experience.

To this day, Rhodes is convinced that the only reason he was accepted into North Carolina State University was because his girlfriend’s father was the registrar there and recognized that he was smart, even if for some reason it didn’t show on tests.

College was better than high school. He avoided history classes, managed a “C” in English and did so well in all of his science classes that the other premed students sought him out as a tutor.

“The prejudice was so much worse in high school,” Rhodes explained. “In college you can do your own thing. No one’s watching you. I could go hide in the library for 10 hours, make 5,000 notecards and study for the test and come back and get an A while everybody else was out partying all night and got a C.”

But then came the MCAT. Taken by every student for the past 94 years who’s wanted to apply to a medical school in the U.S., the test at that time consisted of three sections – two on science and one on reading comprehension – with a top score of 15 in each section.

“You wanted to get at least an 8 per section to be above average, or you were never going to get into medical school – and really, you probably needed a 12 or 13 if you wanted to get into a good medical school,” Rhodes explained.

“I got a 13 and a 12 on the two science sections – which if you do the math, is the national average,” he said.

But when it came to the reading section, he panicked. There was something about Mark Twain … ? He struggled through the first passage, then blindly guessed at the answers for the remaining passages.

When his score came back – the pity “1” – his advisor railed against him, he said. What she didn’t do was suggest that he get some reading help or try to figure out why he did so poorly. She simply told him to take the test again.

“I got a 2. So I doubled my score,” Rhodes said. “But that was it. No medical school gave me an interview.”

Only one school offered any sort of encouragement. The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University said that if he could get his reading score up to an 8, it would consider him.

So, for a year, Rhodes worked three jobs at UNC Rex Hospital, as a phlebotomist, autopsy assistant and data clerk, took a graduate course in cardiovascular physiology at NC State to continue his science education and drove nearly three hours three times per week to a reading specialist in Greenville.

After that year, he took the MCAT again.

He scored a 6.

And then came that conversation. He returned to the reading specialist to see what more could be done to bring up his score. She was discouraging. Most people in his position wouldn’t have even gotten up to a 6, she told him. And as she walked him out, she told him that being a doctor just wasn’t for him.

“You can’t be a doctor,” she said.

“We’ll see about that,” Rhodes thought.

a man in surgical cap, gown, gloves and mask prepares instruments in a procedure room 
Dr. John Rhodes prepares for a procedure. Photo by Sarah Pack

He started studying on his own and then, miracle of miracles, late in the admission cycle, Brody School of Medicine called. He still doesn’t know by what fluke it happened, but the school offered him an interview. There, the doctor interviewing him told Rhodes that the reading specialist had written a letter saying that Rhodes shouldn’t be admitted because he couldn’t read fast enough.

“I told him, ‘Listen, everybody does things differently. I'll study 10 or 12 hours. Whatever it takes. It's not that I can’t do it. It's that I just have to put more time into it than the other kids,’” Rhodes recalled. “And he was like, ‘All right. You’re in.’ And that’s how I got into medical school. With a 6.”

In medical school, Rhodes was in his element. Everything just made sense. Whereas the other students could look at letters on a page and immediately decipher the words, Rhodes could look at pictures and decipher the pathways and patterns.

He recalled the first day of cardiology rotation. The cardiologist handed out printouts of electrocardiogram readings and asked the students what they saw.

“I could just see it,” Rhodes said. “It’s visual. I see the squiggly lines, but I can see deeper into it as to where they’re coming from in the heart. I can three-dimensionally recognize what the heart is and how it’s assessing the heart and how it’s moving.”

Remembering that day in medical school, Rhodes smiles at the cardiologist’s reaction.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to go into cardiology, right?’”

Medical school wasn’t all triumphs. Medical students have to read a lot, and for Rhodes that meant many more hours poring over the books than everyone else. There were times he despaired of finishing school. But he made it through, and he found himself at MUSC for his residency.

Under the tutelage of pediatrician Walton Ector, M.D., Rhodes finally learned the name for the reading difficulties that had plagued him all his life.

It started after Ector pulled Rhodes aside one day.

“He pulled me into this room and said, ‘You failed your medical licensing exam.’ I knew that. I had the letter at home. I knew I failed the damn thing,” Rhodes said.

But Ector didn’t leave it there. Nor did he rail at Rhodes for failing. Instead, he said that he thought Rhodes might have a learning disability.

“I was like, ‘Learning what?’” Rhodes said.

Ector arranged for a friend to test Rhodes. If the testing showed that he had a learning disability, then he could receive accommodations, like extra time, to take his licensing exam. Rhodes had no idea such a possibility existed but, at age 29, he got tested.

“The guy came out, looked at Dr. Ector and me and said, ‘I have no idea how this kid got through medical school,’” he said.

a man in a scrub cap, surgical mask and lead apron washes his arms with soap 
Dr. John Rhodes scrubs in for a case. Photo by Sarah Pack

With a diagnosis of dyslexia in hand, Rhodes requested more time on the licensing exam. It made a world of difference. Now that he wasn’t spending all of his time trying to get through the passages, he could concentrate on the substance. And suddenly the test was easy – after all, he knew the answers. He just needed time to read the questions.

“I almost passed without any help, but I blew it away when I got the help,” he said.

From residency, Rhodes went on to a fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. After stops in Durham, North Carolina; Cleveland and Miami, he returned to MUSC in 2017.

Just as that cardiologist back in medical school had predicted, he went into cardiology. He works with children with heart problems and with adults who were born with heart defects.

In the catheterization lab, he uses imaging to maneuver catheters through arteries to the heart – sometimes to perform a procedure and sometimes to gather information for surgeons who must replace a valve or transplant a new heart.

It’s a job that plays well to his visual/spatial strengths.

He works alongside Varsha Bandisode, M.D., an interventional cardiologist. Usually they each work their own cases, but once or twice a week, they’ll team up for particularly complex or high-risk cases.

They’ve known each other “forever,” Bandisode said. Even though they have completely opposite styles – Rhodes has to have everything in the room organized just so, whereas she is more “off the cuff” – their work habits and varied experience end up complementing each other. Plus, she said, Rhodes is just “an all-around nice guy.”

She was stunned when she learned that Rhodes has dyslexia, which she found out only when she heard that he would be doing the TEDxCharleston talk.

In the past, Rhodes had obliquely alluded to unnamed challenges. But Bandisode never guessed at the struggles he had endured early on.

“It’s a real testament to his drive and his dedication to the field,” she said.

Far from fleeing his care, patients should be even more impressed by him, she said. Without many – or any – supports, people of his generation with learning disabilities and ambition just had to find a way to make it work.

“That’s what John did. It’s really amazing,” she said.

While he was fortunate to find a way, it still concerns Rhodes that the people who oversee the MCAT and medical education don’t seem to want people with learning disabilities to become doctors.

“It saddens me that medicine wants to weed out the ones like me,” he said, adding that that the powers that be simply assume that people with dyslexia won’t be able to keep up.

“But some of most famous successful people in the world have dyslexia,” Rhodes said. “Why wouldn’t they be good doctors? They would be fantastic doctors. So why does it weed them out?”

He thinks his setbacks along the way have made him a better doctor.

“When you struggle in life, you’re good at recognizing people who struggle,” he said. “That's a helluva good trait to have as a doctor because most of your patients are struggling. It's a great asset to have – to be able to empathize a little bit with them.”