Helen Taussig was 11 years old when her mother died of tuberculosis. Helen also became ill with TB. In addition, she was hearing impaired and dyslexic.
Helen wanted to become a doctor but was denied admission to Harvard because they didn’t accept women into their medical school. She was eventually accepted at Johns Hopkins. She decided to specialize in pediatric cardiology since it was a new field of medicine. Babies with heart problems were considered a lost cause.
She developed a surgical procedure for treating babies with blue baby syndrome. The procedure was so successful that the hospital was challenged to keep up with its surgical schedule.
Dr. Taussig’s hearing continued to grow worse. She was not able to use a stethoscope and was forced to feel heartbeats with her fingers. Some of the medical innovations she pioneered are thought to be based on her need to feel rather than hear.
Dr. Taussig continued to bring about advances in pediatric medicine. A number of procedures carry her name. Even though she retired at age 65, she continued to do research and publish papers until her death at age 88.
One of the many honors Dr. Taussig earned was becoming the first woman and first pediatrician to be elected President of the American Heart Association. That must have been a bittersweet triumph for a woman who was forced to sit in the back of the room, away from the male students in her science classes at Boston University. At the time of her election in 1965, Harvard had only accepted women in their medical school for 20 years.
Just think of the challenges that Dr. Taussig faced in her life: loss of hearing, dyslexia, and sexism. She was determined to not let those hold her back. How many other people have given up when faced with life’s challenges?
The spirit to overcome life’s challenges remains little understood. Why do some people prevail, and others see their challenges as a destiny of regret? Having someone as a mentor and coach can be one thing that makes life’s challenges a motivator rather than an anchor. In Dr. Taussig’s case, two role models played an important role in her early career.
While Dr. Taussig’s life challenges were greater than many of us will face, we all need her spirit and drive when times are tough. While we may not know the source of the spirit to overcome life’s challenges, we do know that those who have that spirit lead remarkable lives and become role models for others.
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“Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.”
– Roger Crawford (Professional tennis player with four impaired limbs)