First Andres Vasquez Learned About Pain, Suffering and Patience; Then He Became a Doctor

updated 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The nightmare keeps playing over in his mind.

On the night of May 17, 1980, Andres Vasquez was visiting his sick mother in Miami. A first-year medical student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and the pride of his Hispanic family, Vasquez took a drive to check out the neighborhood. What he didn't know was that on that very day, a jury had acquitted four Miami cops—three white, one Hispanic—of the murder of black insurance executive Arthur McDuffie. Once in the city's predominantly black neighborhood, Liberty City, he found himself in the middle of a riot. A bullet smashed through the window, hitting him in the neck. Instantly paralyzed from the neck down but still conscious, Vasquez was dragged from his car and stomped before police moved in and took him to Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of Miami's best.

While still in intensive care after several hours of surgery, Vasquez asked a doctor if he could still become a physician. "When he said, 'Yes,' I felt the incentive to recover," says Vasquez, now 33. He may have known that his battle with paralysis was only beginning, but he could hardly have guessed what other obstacles would almost prevent his dream from coming true.

Vasquez spent seven months in Jackson's special spinal injury and rehabilitation units, then returned to medical school. His mother, a nurse, his stepfather and two brothers moved to Tennessee to be near him and care for him. He took reduced course loads and studied from his classmates' notes. Fellow students also helped him examine patients by holding his stethoscope and probing for abnormalities at his direction. Although Vasquez missed so much time that he had to begin school all over again, he finally completed the requirements in June 1986 and received his M.D.

At that point Vasquez moved back to Miami with his family to apply for a medical residency. Fiercely self-sufficient, he lived in a specially built addition to the family house with doors widened to accommodate his motorized wheelchair. He got around town with a van built to accommodate his handicap. But the search for a position brought only frustration. He applied for residencies in radiology, pathology and psychiatry, but decided to concentrate on psychiatry because he wanted to have personal contact with patients. Jackson, the hospital where he had been brought after being shot, had allowed him to work there as a senior medical student for five months, but his request for a full-time residency was turned down. "Dr. Vasquez didn't match high enough in either radiology or psychiatry to join our program," said a Jackson spokesman, referring to the national computer system that matches potential residents with hospitals across the country. Simply, Jackson felt it couldn't accept Vasquez, and Vasquez didn't want to go elsewhere.

Vasquez turned to a nonprofit group, the Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, which specializes in helping the handicapped find work. He was assisted by job specialist Betty Modugno. "We wrote letters, proposals, you name it," Vasquez recalls. "She was wonderful." Finally, almost a year later, Jackson accepted Vasquez in a specially created, five-year psychiatric residency. But there was a catch: Although the state vocational rehab division agreed to pay for a nurse practitioner (to work, literally, as his hands), Jackson, a public hospital, would not pay his salary. Since he was being taken on as an extra resident, explained a spokesman, the additional tax dollars were not available for his program. Vasquez was heartbroken. "Can you imagine desperately wanting to help cure people," he says, "and having to come up with your own salary?"

Then, on May 21, seven years to the month after he was shot, the Miami Herald ran a story describing Vasquez's plight. The result was instantaneous. The Dade Foundation, run by former county commissioner Ruth Shack, agreed to pledge Vasquez's full $110,272 stipend for five years. "He's a victim of this community's mistakes," says Shack. "We have to help pick up the pieces because he is a symbol of what we are all about."

Vasquez went on staff last month. "I could have been killed in that riot, and I'll never be a normal doctor. But that difference," he says firmly, "will make me a better doctor."

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