July 27, 2023

Dr. Messman talks about her MS to expand awareness of physicians with disabilities

A leader at the Wayne State University School of Medicine is working to include the recognition of disabled people in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by talking publicly about her own disability while serving as a physician and administrator.

Anne Messman, M.D., MHPE, FACEP, associate dean of Graduate Medical Education and associate professor of Emergency Medicine, recently gave an interview on the Docs With Disabilities podcast in which she told the story of her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and how she handles the condition personally, and with the people with whom she works.

Anne Messman, M.D.

“I think we do a great job of recognizing gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, but we can improve on recognizing and understanding those with disabilities in DEI efforts,” Dr. Messman said. “We need to make sure that folks with disabilities feel welcome and that there's no reason for them to hide their disability … they don't have to disclose it, but they should feel comfortable if that's the decision they want. A lot of times when we are talking now about DEI, I hear a lot about gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, but very little about disability. I think people are starting to put it more at the front and center of DEI efforts, but just making sure that whenever a DEI effort is happening at any level … that at every important juncture it is emphasized that we welcome people of all types, and that includes people with disabilities. I think that message just needs to be reinforced over and over.”

Diagnosed with MS at the age of 16, Dr. Messman hid her disability, explaining that her limp was from a sports injury rather than divulging that she had MS. She said that after years of hiding the reason for her disability, she now identifies openly as a person with a disability, and reveals her condition to the doctors, residents and physicians-in-training she encounters daily in the School of Medicine and emergency rooms in which she works.

Dr. Messman joined the faculty in 2013. She served as the medical education fellowship director for the Department of Emergency Medicine, and previously served as the associate director of the Emergency Medicine Residency Program at Sinai-Grace Hospital. She also has served as the Emergency Medicine Residency Program assistant director at St. John Hospital and Medical Center, as well as the hospital’s director of rotating residents in the Department of Emergency Medicine.

She explained that when she decided to reveal her condition and the reason for her limp about three years ago, she sent a mass email to colleagues.

Because new learners and colleagues have joined the work environment who do not know about her diagnosis, “it (the initial email) almost feels like it’s something I need to send every couple of years, which feels really uncomfortable,” Dr. Messman said. “So when there’s people, either new residents, faculty, or nursing staff that I haven’t worked with very much … I can tell that they’re watching me. I can tell that they’re looking at me funny. They'll say, ‘Hey doc, what's wrong with your leg? Why are you walking like that?’ And I think generally they're expecting that I’m going to say I hurt my knee or I hurt my ankle because I don’t look ‘disabled’ or ‘look sick,’ whatever that means. And then I just say, ‘I have MS, and my right leg is weak.’ And that's usually how people find out.”

Dr. Messman’s mother, also a physician, was diagnosed with MS when she was an Obstetrics and Gynecology resident at Northwestern University in the 1970s. She went on to successfully practice medicine for about 10 years before she became a full-time wheelchair user. She died in 2012 secondary to complications of her MS.

Raised in a family in which health issues were kept private, Dr. Messman said she was encouraged to do the same about her MS.

“When you're carrying a secret like that, it becomes very heavy and can become something like, ‘Well, why am I hiding this? It must be something I should be ashamed of or embarrassed of.’ I never wanted anyone to think that I had gotten where I'd gotten because of any sort of pity or anything like that,” she told podcaster Lisa Meeks, Ph.D., executive director of the Doctors With Disabilities Initiative. “So I held onto that secret for decades, actually, really until about 2020 or 2021. I had this sort of impossible goal for myself that I would only tell people when I had reached some sort of success. And my definition of success evolved over time. So at first, I thought, well, once I get into medical school, then I'll feel comfortable telling people because I’ve gotten in on my own merit.” She explained that once she got into medical school, that still did not feel enough of an accomplishment, so she set new goals, vowing to disclose her diagnosis when the next goal was met. This went on for 15 years, until she finally disclosed her diagnosis in 2021.

The outpouring of support once she disclosed her diagnosis and disability made her wonder why she kept the diagnosis private so long. “That (outpouring of support) was so powerful that it made me feel silly about why I was so scared to tell these people I really care about. I should have trusted that they care about me as much as I care about them. And I did sort of feel guilty for not telling them sooner. I think that they probably deserved to know that sooner. But then, you know, when you disclose other than, you know, feeling the great support that leads to just feeling … more empowered and a little bit bolder and thinking, ‘Okay, I've told my story, but now in the position that I’m in, what positive things can I do to make sure that nobody else feels the way that I did, nobody else feels scared?’ It was very motivating to try to use my position to do better.

“I want to be an advocate, and I want to do more for the community of doctors that identify as disabled.” Dr. Messman said. “And I just am hungry to learn more because I know that there's more that I can be doing. I just don't know what it is. But I do feel empowered to not only learn more, but that I’m in a position where I could enact some of the changes that I'd like to see.”
Listen to the complete podcast here

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