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MAKINGTHE GRADE

Jessica Fernandez will do her residency at Jefferson Medical Collegeâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099s duPoint Childrenâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099s Hospital in Philadelphia. LARRY FELDMAN | Special to the Times
Published Apr. 30, 2018

Jessica Fernandez, 27, remembers racing to class carrying an oversized backpack through the hallowed halls of the University of Tampa, dodging other students and never accepting any assistance while trying to get to class.
Through it all, Fernandez never lost sight of her ultimate goal: a degree in medicine.

On May 18, the goal will become a reality and Fernandez will put M.D. after her name after earning her degree from the University of Central Florida.

The road to medical school is difficult enough, even for the brightest individual, but for medical students with physical or mental disabilities, the journey is even harder and often littered with roadblocks at every turn.

Whether it's just being accepted into a program or needing assistance to reach a different floor in the clinic, students with disabilities must navigate these difficulties while making the grades.

But Fernandez never wavered in her aspirations despite living most of her life with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, a condition more commonly known as SED, that affects bone growth and causes small stature.

She's 4-foot-2, but Fernandez's giant attitude has always belied her diminutive frame.

• • •

SED occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 births, and Fernandez was diagnosed at 3 years old. She was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to a father who is a civil engineer and a mother who is a pharmacist/microbiologist. Fernandez had four siblings, none of whom have the disorder, but at age 2 1/2, her mother Maria Luisa de Curtis Fernandez noticed her daughter struggled to walk up the stairs as her older siblings had done.

Taking immediate action, her mother and father took her to several medical specialists in Caracas who made multiple diagnoses, all of which pointed to a short life-span for the ailing child. Not accepting this as her fate, her mother took her to the United States and Boston Children's Hospital, which at that time was the top orthopedic hospital in the country.

It was there they discovered Fernandez had SED.

"When we first realized Jessica's health situation was very serious, my first desire was for her to just survive and hopefully become as happy a woman as possible," De Curtis Fernandez said.

When Fernandez turned 13, the family moved from Venezuela to the Ocala area where other family members resided. The relocation was made with the intent for a better opportunity for Jessica.

While Fernandez attended various schools, her parents and the entire family pitched in to help with any of her personal or emotional needs. However, they treated Fernandez as any other kid when she attended school or was in a social situation. She dated, had crushes on boys, wrote her feelings in her diary and lived a normal life.

"My mother, knowing my life would require a different kind of strength, continually reinforced the importance of that what's inside in your mind and heart is all that really counts," said Fernandez, recalling those powerful words she carries daily in her life.

• • •

Throughout her early school years, Fernandez' outgoing and magnetic personality was always prominent in her future growth as a woman and scholar. She emerged as a leader with excellent grades.

"The teachers would comment they always loved having me in their class as I was a social butterfly," Fernandez said with an impish grin. "My teachers adored me and I loved them for taking the time to understand and accept me for who I was."

After graduation from Lecanto High School, Fernandez earned the Nicole Murphy Scholarship while pursuing a biology degree at the University of Tampa.

"She's incredible," says Marsha Sherman, retired assistant director of career services at UT. "Along with her big heart, Jessica is strong and capable of anything she wants to do. She's a ray of sunshine"

She entered medical school at the University of Central Florida in 2014.

The four years of medical school were inspirational yet challenging for Fernandez. She remained determined to overcome any obstacle standing in her way of becoming a doctor.

"Around the third year I knew I was going to have to walk miles around the hospital to visit patients, so I got an electric wheelchair," Fernandez said. "I also wanted to drive, so I made sure my car had pedals and a higher seat," Fernandez said.

Her studies included a clinical rotation at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, where she again impressed colleagues and observers.

"Jessica is a true inspiration to everyone and her future has no limit," said Dr. Kevin White, chief of Haley's Spinal Cord Injury Center. "College students with disabilities often face challenges most people are unaware of and overcoming them is often no easy feat. She represents the fact that no challenge is too great.

"The door is open and Jessica is leading the way."

• • •

In March, Fernandez learned she got the residency match she sought with Jefferson Medical College's duPont Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. It's one of only three combined pediatric and physical medicine and rehabilitation positions in the country that train doctors to care for children with movement disorders caused by conditions such as traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy.

And Jessica's condition.

Her mother was by her side when she got the news.

With graduation in sight, Fernandez now strives to become an advocate for people with disabilities in medicine. She passionately accepts this role as she wants others to lead a life that is fearless and full of the independence she so often displays.

"People sometimes fear what they don't understand," Fernandez said. "So when you sit with them and you explain to them what they're wondering, and when they see your openness to answer those questions, you just break that barrier right then and there."

Contact Mike Merino at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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