From motorcycle crash survivor to medical school graduate

May 17, 2022
College of Medicine graduate Julia Rodes in her wheelchair wearing her white doctor's coat with a big smile on her face.
College of Medicine graduate Julia Rodes. Photo by Sarah Pack

Julia Rodes had serious doubts about whether she’d make it through medical school. “100%, 110%,” she said. But as she prepares to graduate from the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and begin a residency at MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, she has become an inspiring figure on campus and beyond.

“Her focus and drive have helped me to view our world through a unique lens and have led to real change that will impact generations to come at MUSC,” said Christopher Bunt, M.D., associate dean for Student Affairs and Professionalism in the College of Medicine.

Rodes will become the second student to graduate from the College of Medicine using a wheelchair. The first is someone she knows well. She met John Lin, M.D., at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta after a motorcycle crash that left her paralyzed. Lin is medical director of the center’s Spinal Cord Injury Program and a 1996 MUSC graduate.

Headshot of Dr. John Lin. He is wearing a suit and tie. 
Dr. John Lin

“It was so transformative to know Dr. Lin. He’s a physical representation of a person who went through the exact same thing. And he is living a life in medicine. He was able to do it. You know, I needed that physical representation at that moment,” Rodes said.

She’d been afraid that her chance to become a doctor disappeared the day she crashed while taking a class required to get a motorcycle license. Rodes hit a curb and went flying into a wall. She wound up pinned under the motorcycle. Rodes doesn’t remember the accident but does remember what it was like recovering from it.

“A spinal cord injury is not just about not being able to walk anymore. You don’t have control over your bowels; you don’t have control over your nervous system, like whether or not you’re going to sweat, whether or not your body can regulate itself anymore,” she said.

College of Medicine graduate Julia Rodes and her husband Jared. They are seated and smiling. 
Julia Rodes with her husband Jared. They met as teenagers working at a church camp. Photo by Sarah Pack

“I saw how exhausting every day could possibly be when I was first rehabbing and learning how to get dressed and learning how to put my pants on and learning how to use a catheter. I was so overwhelmed by how hard it would be to live. I thought I was going to lose my chance to be in medicine, too. Science is where my heart was. I didn’t know what else to do with my life if I couldn’t do science.”

She learned she could – from Lin. “Dr. Lin made a path for me to come into medicine. I learned a lot of strengths from him. It’s not how you overcome something, but how you continue to face it daily. And make the choice to continue to face it daily.”

Lin called it humbling to hear that. He said her achievement shows just how capable people with disabilities can be. “I knew she was a tenacious person who wanted to grab the bull by the horns and solve the problem. She’s definitely self-directed. She has no problem initiating an action plan.”

She had to do that in medical school, working with professors and peers to find ways to do the required class and clinical work. “The most accessible rotation that I had was my surgery rotation because of how aware and how open the attendings were to having dialogue about, ‘Hey, what if I try to scrub in; I’m not going be able to touch my chair to move over here. So let’s talk about how we’re going to do that.’ Accessibility is less about, ‘Is there a ramp?’ And it’s more about how, ‘How can we talk about this?’”

And talking will be a big part of her future. After she finishes her psychiatry residency at MUSC Health, Rodes will work at the VA Medical Center in Charleston. As the wife of an Army officer, she feels right at home with veterans. And she chose psychiatry because she’s seen plenty of mental health suffering and wants to help.

Julia Rodes during her rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center. She is smiling while appearing to exercise on special equipment. 
Rodes during her rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center following a motorcycle accident. Photo provided

Some of that suffering was among her fellow patients at the Shepherd Center when they were learning how to live with spinal cord injuries that left them paralyzed. “You’re all learning together. So you bond really well with these other people, and you graduate rehab together. And that means that you have learned all the lessons you need to learn in order to live independently. And we keep in touch,” Rodes said. “Unfortunately, I’ve lost some friends to suicide.”

Suicide also affected her husband’s world. “I’ve spent the last 10 years with my husband as an active duty spouse. We were able to travel with the Army, and the Army treated us really well. But the longer he was active duty, the more of his friends and his soldiers took their lives. And so suicide became this common theme that we grew to understand.”

She wants to show people dealing with that level of suffering that there are other choices. Her own experience will be a part of that. “In psychiatry, you’re dealing with a lifelong illness. I am living in a body that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. And for a lot of people, they wake up in a reality that they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen either. And I think I can really relate to somebody on that,” she said.

“There’s somebody living in a chair; you might guess that they live with chronic pain. And that’s something that I live with. Seeing a physical representation of somebody living in pain makes you feel like, ‘Maybe I can do it too.’ And so I hope that helps somebody else.”

Rodes said the acceptance she’s found for a life that hasn’t gone the way she planned is something she can share with them, too. “Not every happy ending is about a cure. Not every happy ending is about being free from disease or being free from the ailment. A lot of happy endings have to do with having peace. And I have peace with my injury. I have peace with my body,” Rodes said.

“It’s because I have so much excitement for what I can do and what I am going to be doing. And so when you redefine capability, it just opens the world to you.”

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