McGovern Medical School students create scholarship for future physicians facing adversity

The Claudia I. Martinez Strength Scholarship is endowed with $25,000 in contributions

McGovern Medical School students create scholarship for future physicians facing adversity

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On Feb. 6, 2020, Claudia Martinez and Omar Alnatour, fourth-year medical students at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, were thrilled to reach their fundraising goal of $25,000 to establish an endowment for a new scholarship.

The date held profound significance: Three years prior, Martinez was recovering from a stroke at TIRR Memorial Hermann that had left her in a hospital bed and temporarily paralyzed from the neck down.

Alnatour met Martinez for the first time on Feb. 6, 2017. After learning that a fellow student had been admitted to the hospital, he visited to offer his support. That day, he told Martinez and her mother that he wanted to create a scholarship in her honor.

“I remember coming into the room and going to shake her hand and she was unable to lift her hand because of the stroke that she had. It was at that moment that I had a true idea of the amount of difficulty that she has gone through,” Alnatour said. “Prior to meeting her in person, I had read a good bit about her struggles in medical school because of her medical condition. When I was sitting there in the hospital room with her and her mother—and she was telling me about her story and what her journey has been like—I realized that the only thing that I could do to help her would be to address her biggest fear, which she said was a fear that her medical condition would one day prevent her from being able to help those in need through the practice of medicine.”

McGovern Medical School student Claudia Martinez in 2018, following her Chiari malformation diagnosis, with a port in her chest that served as an entryway for her IV fluids as well as a feeding tube that led to her stomach and small intestine to provide daily basic nutrition.

Martinez has faced a tremendous amount of adversity. In 2011, she was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, a condition in which part of the brain extends into the spinal canal, causing compression of the brain stem, as well as the development of a cyst in her spinal cord. Since then, she has undergone six major brain surgeries and numerous shunt surgeries to support her feeding tube and port as well as other procedures and hospitalizations. She has also fought through hydrocephalus, a chronic pain condition in one of her cranial nerves, partial paralysis of her stomach and a tethered brain stem—all while remaining dedicated to her schoolwork, first as an undergraduate and later in medical school.

Read the essay by Claudia Martinez published in the August 2018 issue of TMC Pulse magazine: The Patient Who is Studying to be a Doctor.

Notably, Martinez began medical school two years prior to Alnatour, but because of her hospitalizations and surgeries, she eventually landed in his class.

After meeting Martinez in 2017, Alnatour went home that day and started a GoFundMe page to raise $1,000 for what he thought would fund one scholarship. He reached his goal in less than 24 hours, so he raised the amount to $2,000 with hopes of providing two scholarships. Then he got a phone call from the medical school. They were extremely supportive of the initiative, he said, but explained that the process wasn’t that easy. It turns out that in order to create an official medical school scholarship, an endowment of at least $25,000 had to be established so that the funds would self-renew.

For three years, Alnatour worked with administrators to hammer out logistics and necessary approvals to begin an endowment campaign. It was finally approved in the fall of 2019 and the money was raised in a few short months.

“I think it’s only fitting that it took longer than expected to complete the scholarship because it kind of reflects Claudia’s journey to medical school and how, despite all the hurdles and the length of time that it took her to reach her goal, she never gave up,” Alnatour said. “So, it was very easy for me to stay inspired and maintain a sense of resilience when you have someone like Claudia to consistently draw inspiration from.”

In the coming years, the Claudia I. Martinez Strength Scholarship will help medical students who have overcome adversity on their path to becoming a physician—just like its namesake.

“This could be financial adversity, personal adversity or a medical one,” Alnatour said. “That was something that was important to Claudia … that we recognize that different people from different walks of life all have faced different struggles on their paths to becoming physicians, so we want to support them in honor of her story.”

It’s a story Martinez hopes will inspire others to keep going, although Alnatour said he had to convince Martinez to name the scholarship in her honor.

“For so many years, I was told: ‘You can’t be a doctor. You’re always in the hospital and that people with chronic illnesses are often seen as patients and they’re told you have to wait until you get better in order to pursue your dreams.’ I really tried my best to show others that you have to still live your life,” Martinez said. “You’re going to have difficulty and things aren’t going to go your way. You’re not going to have a normal life, but you can still find ways to adapt, find other ways to do things and overcome those obstacles and get on the path to where you want to be.”

Delay, in this case, did not mean denial.

“That’s what I’m really excited about—for the community and especially the medical community—to recognize that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are worth just as much as a normal person,” Martinez added. ” We may have to accommodate to a couple of things, but that doesn’t mean that we’re less of a doctor or less of a person because of that.”

Even before she graduates, Martinez has succeeded in contributing to future physicians through example and deed.

“Looking back at various points, I’m so glad I didn’t take the advice of everyone who told me that I needed to step away from medicine,” she said.

Claudia Martinez in 2018 when she was spending four to six hours each day at her home infusing IV fluids. Here, she sits on a sofa under her “Sweet 16” portrait.

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