MORRISTOWN, NJ – Long before becoming a general surgery resident at Morristown Medical Center, Dr. Christopher McCulloh experienced a life-changing event nine years ago that would be one of his greatest tests of will just six months before starting medical school at Case Western Reserve University, the top-ranked private research university in Ohio.
It was a typical a Sunday evening, as McCulloh recalled, until he slipped on the hardwood floor and dislocated the C7 spinal segment in his neck, which rendered him unconscious for about 15 minutes and paralyzed below the waist. After a two-week stay in the hospital and enduring a four-month rehabilitation program it was clear that he would not be able to return to pre-injury form where he would not be able to walk independently again.
That is when the reality of the daunting challenge that he faced of becoming a surgeon sunk in, but it did not discourage him from pursuing his life-long dream. In fact, it served as his motivation to prove others wrong even though he admittedly had some tough days throughout the rehabilitation process.
“My initial interest was in neurosurgery and when I broke my neck, I told the neurosurgeon who operated on me that I’m going to medical school and I want to do what you’re doing,” explained McCulloh, as he recalled his first doubter. “He was very supportive of my interest in medical school, but suggested that I pursue something else where I wouldn’t be standing for long periods of time.”
Throughout medical school, McCulloh received much more support, which he says a major factor in his development as a surgeon.
“I was fortunate enough to find a few surgeons who were more than happy to have me with them in the operating room,” says McCulloh. “They were very willing to find ways to make it work.”
It was during medical school that McCulloh received advice from a plastic surgeon in Hawaii how he could ‘mobilize’ himself through a standing wheelchair, which was backed in his case through a state-funded program in Ohio that he was able to secure as a medical school student. Learning that several other surgeons across the country were able to perform at a high level under similar circumstances gave him a boost of confidence.
“I’ve been fortunate that more often than not, I’ve had people in my life that have been very supportive,” suggests McCulloh, who is in his third year at Morristown Medical Center. “I’ve had really good mentorship. Not only at medical school, but now with Dr. (Eric) Lazar, who is the program director at Morristown Medical Center even before I started here.
“The mentorship I’ve received has been key all along the way.”
Dr. McCulloh now uses a specialty Levo C3 standing wheelchair while he operates and has been using this device over the last four years. This enables him to perform surgeries just like any other surgeon.
ABC’s 20/20 will feature Dr. McCulloh’s journey to becoming a surgeon tonight alongside other doctors with disabilities in the 10 p.m. hour. The segment cross-promotes the channel’s new TV medical-drama series “The Good Doctor,” a surgeon living with autism spectrum disorder, which will premiere on Monday, September 25.
“I’ve learned that a lot of people are dealing with challenges in life, mine just happen to be more visible,” McCulloh said. “It’s important not to get caught up in the little day-to-day bumps and hiccups. Don’t lose sight on the big picture of what’s important in life.”
McCulloh’s inner competitive-self motivates him to continue performing at a high level while saving patients’ lives.