HOUSTON - She always dreamed of becoming a doctor and nothing could get in her way. From six brain surgeries in five years, complications including a stroke and nearly becoming paralyzed, Claudia Martinez worked tirelessly to conquer every bit of adversity.
The 29-year-old is a 4th year student at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
Claudia Martinez was born with a brain condition with no known cure called Chiari malformation. Martinez went undiagnosed for 21 years, but after a car accident in 2011, she became symptomatic.
“Most people live with it their entire lives and they're fine, but other people unfortunately like me, their function is severely affected,” Martinez said.
Over time, Martinez began losing her balance and function in her arms and legs. She'd even begin developing fluid in her spinal cord.
“My brain was herniating a little too much and compressing my brain stem. I was losing function like feeling in my legs, my arms. I was getting a lot of weakness in my legs. Sometimes I would stand up and just sort of fall down. I’m blacking out. Trouble swallowing,” Martinez said.
“So whenever I met my neurosurgeon, he was like, you need brain surgery next week. If not, you're going to end up paralyzed from the neck down,” Martinez continued.
She proceeded to have six brain surgeries -- two while in undergrad at the University of Houston and four during medical school at McGovern.
Over the course of those five years, she suffered various complications including having to use a feeding tube at one point.
In February 2017 during her last and most recent surgery, Martinez suffered a stroke.
“I couldn't function from the neck down. And so that really took a toll on me. I had to relearn how to walk. I had to relearn how to bathe myself. I had to relearn how to dress myself, how to feed myself, how to swallow. And that was difficult. It took me about a year,” Martinez said.
The stroke compromised her vision and nearly paralyzed her dominant right side. She still struggles to lift her right arm or use her right hand. Instead, she's had to relearn how to do everything with her left.
“For me, when I think of medical school, I automatically think of the hospital,” Martinez said.
Miraculously, all that only set her back two years.
Her determination to become a doctor never faltered. Instead of watching TV or napping, she studied-- a lot. She studied in the waiting room, before procedures and during recovery.
“Any way I could. If I couldn't really see, I would listen to my classes. If I needed help turning books, my mom was the one who would like turn pages in my books for me. She really was my hands, my eyes, my ears when I couldn't have those functions,” Martinez said.
Although her brain appeared to be her biggest challenge, it also proved to become her biggest ally in making her dreams come true.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to not let anything I've gone through, be an excuse. So when other people would study for 8 hours a day, I'd be putting in 16 hours a day,” Martinez said.
“It can be done. It's difficult, I'm not gonna lie. It's very difficult. But it's possible,” Martinez continued.
Martinez graduates in May and will find out where she's headed for residency on Match Day in March.
One of her classmates, Omar Alnatour, was so inspired by her story, he started a scholarship in her honor to help other medical students facing adversity.
Alnatour’s been working on it with UTHealth for two and a half years.
The Claudia I. Martinez Strength Scholarship Endowment hopes to award its first recipient in the upcoming fall semester
If you'd like to help with the scholarship fund, click here.