Villa Julie graduates get lesson in perseverance

Surgeon with dwarfism describes his challenges

May 19, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun Reporter

When others said no, he pressed on. When others closed doors, he pushed forward. When they told him he'd never realize his dream of becoming a surgeon, he proved them wrong.

"They told me I couldn't do it because of my size: `Patients won't respect you and you couldn't do it physically,'" recalled Dr. Michael C. Ain, who at 4 feet 3 inches tall is believed to be the only little person to become a surgeon. "Needless to say, I challenged them on both."

More than 500 graduates at Villa Julie College in Stevenson listened intently at the 55th commencement yesterday as Ain recalled receiving dozens of rejections - an estimated 60 - from medical schools across the country.

Ain, who has a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, is an orthopedic surgeon and associate professor in pediatric orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University, where a medical geneticist diagnosed his condition as a child.

The Brown University graduate eventually was accepted at Albany Medical College in upstate New York.

Against the backdrop of the graduation's theme, "With this step, we start our journey," Ain pointed to his experience as evidence that drive and determination can propel anyone past the doubters.

Ain, 46, recalled a recent encounter with a surgeon who years before had insisted he would never become a surgeon.

"I'm not saying revenge is sweet, but I reminded him a few times about those remarks," said Ain, who is one of only a handful of little people who are physicians.

"As my mother would say, `Not too shabby,'" Ain added as the crowd erupted in chuckles.

As Lauren Humphries, a 21-year-old rising senior from Bel Air, introduced him to the audience before his speech, she said that she and the doctor share more than obvious similarities in stature. She also has achondroplasia and is one of his patients.

"We both have small hands, big hearts and big dreams," she told the crowd filling the bleachers in the college's gymnasium. "And we both cringe at the same four-letter word - `can't.'"

Humphries said she met Ain in February 2005 when she required a spinal fusion procedure to treat spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the pelvic bones that causes the compression of the spine and is a common condition associated with achondroplasia.

"I feared I'd never walk again, let alone play another tennis match," she told the crowd.

"But luckily for me, somewhere in a parallel universe in the recent past, there lived a man who dreamt of becoming a surgeon," she said. "Facing similar obstacles, he set out to follow his dream, but his path toward medical school was blocked by others' doubt, disbelief and uncertainty. Again, luckily for me, the man never gave up."

In an interview after the graduation, Humphries said she has long held convictions similar to Ain's.

"My philosophy has always been to prove people wrong," said Humphries, a business communications major who wants to work in public relations.

As graduates poured into a courtyard area outside the gym, 21-year-old Fernando Huertas of Laurel said he could relate to Ain's message about perseverance.

"I've always had the mentality that you put your head down and charge through," said Huertas, who received a bachelor's degree in computer information systems yesterday.

Born in Puerto Rico, Huertas moved to Mount Vernon, Va., when he was 3 years old with his mother, Morayma Huertas, a nurse and a single parent, and his brother, Roberto Jr., and sister, Belleange. Huertas is the first of the siblings to earn a college degree.

Yesterday, his mother beamed with pride. His father, Roberto Sr., an anesthesiologist who had flown in from Puerto Rico for the graduation, darted around taking pictures. His stepfather, Jorge Valdes, straightened Huertas' tie.

And his sister sang his praises.

"It's a great accomplishment, and we're very proud of him," said Belleange Huertas, 24, who is a service coordinator for children with disabilities in the infants and toddlers program for the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services.

Her brother, she said, has inspired her to consider attending college. She said she'd like to become a teacher and perhaps open an outreach center.

For now, she encouraged her brother, who plans to return to Villa Julie College this fall to pursue a master's degree in advanced information technology, to take Ain's advice to heart.

"Keep positive and stay focused," she said. "The sky's the limit now."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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