When 28-year-old Steve Madigan goes down the hospital corridor, he leaves in his wake:
Doctors nodding approvingly.
The first because he is strikingly handsome and naturally flirtatious. The second because he is a brilliant medical student. The third for the same reason as the second. The last because he goes down the corridor in a wheelchair. In fact, he spends most of his life in a wheelchair because he's paralyzed from the waist down.
On Saturday Madigan will roll across the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and fulfill his earliest lifetime goan. He will graduate -- with honors -- from Georgetown University Medical School. His parents from Portland, Maine, will be there. So will his brother the insurance businessman, his brother the priest (almost -- he'll be ordained next month), his sister the law student, his sister the nurse, his sister the department store buyer and his college student brother Peter.
The family Madigan will be some cheering section for Steve, but then Steve is some cheering section for his family.
"They're, well, kinda crazy," Madigan says of his family, "you know, wild, always clowning around, vying for attention . . . they're all theatrical."
But infinitely supportive.
Maybe that is part of what is so special about Steve Madigan -- because his very special problem turned out not to be much of a problem at all.
He is sitting in the doctors' lounge off the lobby of Fairfax Hospital where he is on the final service (surgery) of his medical school career.
He is trying to think of how his wheels may have slowed him down as a student, and all he can come up with is a flat tire or two, the occasional need for a bit of mechanical ingenuity, of which he has plenty, and an occasional double take from a patient or a nurse.
And an occasional midunderstanding:
When Steve Madigan came to the hospital as a beginning medical student, his sister recalled, he got into an elevator with his group. A nursing supervisor spotted him and promptly scolded him for appropriating a wheelchair for his own use. (Medical students are notoriously over worked and tired and will often use any excuse to rest.) Madigan just shrugged. Later on he met the same nurse in another elevator. "Didn't I tell you wheelchairs were for patients?" she snapped. "Yes ma'am," said Steve Madigan, no doubt with his secret Madigan smile.
It was Easter Sunday morning of 1975, Steve Madigan had been out of school for some two years, trying so far unsuccessfully, to get into medical school. He'd been at loose ends for months, he recalled, and had been "partying a lot."
A car freak and a natural mechanic, he had a "hot rod" he'd done a lot of tinkering on. "I'd had several beers . . . and I can't remember much . . . but I went on this road I never go on. Apparently passed a car. I guess I oversteered because there was a median strip . . . I don't remember the chronology, but it went off the side of the road, knocked out the guard rails on the side. The windshield apparently went out, then I went out over the hill. It was about a 75-foot embankment. The car went end over end . . ."
"The next thing I knew I was in theintensive care unit, coughing . . ."
Judy Madigan said she was thinking about renting a band for Steve's graduation.
"I know he's my brother and you tend to be prejudiced, but he's unique. He never complains. He's a total inspiration . . . I've sat on my bed and tried to imagine what it's like not to be able to move my legs . . . My high point is going to be when he wheels across that stage, because it's not just the M.D., it's so much more . . ."
Judy Madigan is plainspoken and forthright. She describes herself as "the one who pushes Steve over the bumps," and she seems to be talking about more than just the wheelchair.
Ten years her brother's senior, Judy Madigan, now a buyer at Woodward and Lothrop in Washingotn, says she always did think of Steve as "her baby." After the accident, she recalled "the nurses told us that 90 percent of his rehabilitation depended on us. We shouldn't avoid saying 'paraplegic,' for example.
"So when he'd been there [the hospital] about four months and was complaining about not being able to get into medical school, I said, 'Never mind, Stephen, I'll just give you an accordion and a box of No. 2 pencils . . ."
Madigan was in the hospital for seven months. For much of that time he was totally immobilized. It was the Madigan humor and his music that got him through, he says.
"If it wasn't for his symphonies and his opera," his mother says, "I just don't know. He had headphones and his music."
Alice Madigan, Steve's mother, who works in her husband's podiatry office in Portland, was "devastated of course" by the accident, but organized the family so that someone was with him around the clock.
"When he came home, Stephen once asked me, 'Mother, didn't you ever cry?' and I said, 'Stephen, that's something I would never let you know."
Steve resubmitted his applications for medical school from his hospital bed with the help of his family. "I knew he'd be accepted," says Judy Madigan. "Now he was a minority."
Steve Madigan is not the first paraplegic medical student, but he is certainly the first to be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). "I told him we could waive that requirement," said Hap Arnold, who teaches the required CPA and advanced life support to the medical students at Georgetown. "But he didn't want that, so at least he decided he needed to watch. But that didn't satisfy him either, so we devised a new system."
Eventually the "new system" will be submitted to the American Heart Association for use with other paraplegics. Meanwhile, Madigan was recertified only a few weeks ago.
During the process, "he seemed to be getting so fatigued that we were afraid we'd have to give it up," Arnold said recently. "So I called over another student and asked him if he could figure out why Steve was so tired. He looked for a second and said; 'Sure. He's not breathing.' We realized that the muscles he was using for the CPR are his breathing muscles, so as soon as we gave him the opportunity to breathe, the fatigue problem was solved."
Steve Madigan had an assortment of medically related jobs before he entered medical school itself, including a post-accident position as the Maine coordinator for the New England Spinal Cord Injury Foundation, which gave him a bridge between hospitals -- as patient and student.
"The great thing about medical school," he says, "is that I was never treated as anybody different. Of course, I never felt different, and that," he says very seriously, "is probably related to my sense of humor."
It is a humor that is quiet -- he was, after all, the second-youngest in a family of seven boisterous kids, he points out -- but rather impish. It is the way he throws himself on the ever-so-willing mercies of young nurses, often when he doesn't need to.
His sister, though, doesn't let him get away with it. "Once he said to me, 'oh, I would just love to get up and dance,' and I said, 'You never could dance worth a darn, what are you talking about?' And he said, a little sheepishly, 'Oh yeah.'"
Then there is the side of Madigan humor that is largely unprintable. That is one thing that endeared him to Dr. Thomas Lee, Georgetown surgeon and associate professor in the medical school. That and the face that Lee finds him "the best medical student I've ever had."
"Steve has got it all together," says Dr. Lee.
Lee likes Madigan for another reason, too. The medical student once thought about a opera as a career ("I'm a pretty fair bass-bariton," he brags.) and Dr. Lee's wife loves opera. Dr. Lee doesn't. So Steve Madigan takes Mrs. Lee to the opera and everybody is happy.
For a while, Steve Madigan planned to go into surgery, but a growing love affair with the whole new world or fadiology, and some of the mechanical problems associated with operating rooms versus wheels, tipped the scales to radiology as a specialty.
"He has a surgeon's personality, says Dr. Lee, "whatever that it, but I think he made the right choice. I only regret that he is leaving Georgetown. t(Madigan will be at the Maine Medical Center in a rotating internship.)
Dr. Lee says he's learned a lot from Steve Madigan. For one thing, he won't ever park again in a place reserved for the handicapped.
"Well," said Ronald Eden, a surgery patient at Fairfax Hospital, "the first time I saw him wheel in here, I thought, 'Jeez, what gives here,' but boy, he really is a nice guy and a good doctor."
Eden, 33, a Falls Church, Va., accountant, had had chest surgery to remove a benign cyst. He was recovering nicely and Madigan was removing the medical staples. As Madigan leaned solicitously over his patient he chatted easily, effectively distracting his patient's attention from the prickly procedure.
Then it was time for the day's operation, exploratory surgery on a young woman who had had successful bypass surgery for a weight problem, had lost 100 pounds and then developed what the doctors call "f.u.o." -- a fever of unknown origin.
Before the operation Madigan accepted help from a nurse in hiking himself up onto a platform rig to make him high enough to help in the surgery.
Then he was capped and gowned and gloved and wheeled up to the table. His share of the operation consisted of a quick internal feel and snipping off of the thread the surgeon was using. (Nothing serious was found, "but it was important to rule out" a lot of things, Madigan says.)
One thing that kept Steve Madigan going in the early days after his accident was the knowledge "that it was my own fault. So I really had nobody to blame. And I really didn't feel sorry for myself. I just knew I had to get going."
Dr. David Pearly, Madigan's cardiology professor who thought he would make a first-rate cardiologist, says he was (intellectually one of the strongest students I've ever encountered . . . and I'm sure it's not true, but it seems like he's always happy."
Madigan says, "There are days when you're down, but you rally."
Dr. Lee, Steve Madigan's friend and mentor, paints pictures of birds as a hobby. He gave Madigan a painting of an eagle with this inscription:
"EAGLESs. When they walk, they stumble. They are not what one would call graceful. They were not designed to walk. They fly. And when they fly, oh, how they fly, so free, so graceful. They see from the sky what we never see. Steve, you are an eagle."
"I'm not handicapped," Steve Madigan once told his sister. "I just can't walk."