In his apartment, Ryan Martin has the requisite medical textbooks. He has the student's scattering of clothes about the bedroom. And he has surrounded himself with images of motion. One poster shows Michael Jordan in midair and another the muscular legs of an Olympic soccer player.
Martin once thought he could be a professional soccer player, and he might have made it. At 12, he was a star on the field, driven by his love of competition and the game. But on Jan. 21, 1987, the boy and his parents and little brother pulled up to their Northwest Washington home, and a man with a gun was waiting.
The estranged boyfriend of the family's former nanny had stalked the family for weeks; she had disappeared, and he blamed them. The man stepped out of his car, aimed the gun at Ryan's stepfather, fired three times and missed. Then he turned toward Ryan.
Ryan didn't hear the gunshots or feel the bullets ripping into his back. But even though it was a cold night and about to snow, lying on the ground he felt an intense wave of heat move through his body .
Fekadu Abtew had shot Ryan twice and then driven off. Abtew ended up in a Baltimore bar, where he shot and killed himself.
The story was all over the news. Ryan Martin almost died that night. Finally, a doctor at Children's Hospital told his parents: Your son will make it, but he will live the rest of his life paralyzed from the waist down.
Soccer was gone forever. The thin, blond boy with braces on his teeth was about to enter another field of competition: against his damaged body, and himself.
"I never was really thinking about the big picture," Martin says now. "I was just focused on the day-to-day things. I went from 'Boy, I would like to hold my head up!' to 'Boy, I would like to turn over!' to 'Boy, I would like to push down the hall!' to 'Boy, I would like to go home!' to 'Boy, I would like to play tennis!'
"It was one goal at a time, the way people do things. When a situation confronts you, you do what's natural."
And what was natural for him was to play hard and try to win.
Within two years, Martin had turned himself into a national champion of wheelchair tennis, traveling across the country and to Europe and the Middle East to compete.
The shooting that brought him to a new and unexpected sport has now brought him to a new and unexpected calling. Last month, he entered the Yale University School of Medicine.
At 25, he is the first Yale medical student in a wheelchair that any of the deans can remember. Indeed, there are so few medical students in wheelchairs nationally that the California-based Disability Statistics Rehabilitation Research and Training Center has never counted them, and a spokeswoman there said the number is probably statistically insignificant.
Fiercely independent, Martin doesn't think of himself as disabled and hates that some may view him only as a young paraplegic who overcame tragedy to get to med school. Instead, he wants people to see him as a hard-working student trying to become a good scientist and compassionate doctor.
"I have the same fears as my classmates," Martin says. "I worry about being liked and being successful. Am I going to know what I'm doing? Am I going to be good at what I do? Am I going to be empathetic?"
But of course he is not just one more medical student. The actions of a man with a gun--and what Ryan made of his life after the gun went off--guaranteed that.
Being the Best
Martin zooms down the low-ceilinged, narrow corridors of Yale's medical school, weaving through the labyrinth of hallways and overhead tunnels.
His blond hair has darkened since childhood, but he is no less quick to smile. He makes self-deprecating jokes, perhaps in an attempt to put others at ease with his situation, and he charms those around him. Wherever he goes on campus, people--especially attractive young women--run up to him. Let's play tennis sometime, says one. Let's go to a party tonight, says another.
As much as he wants to win any game he enters, he still is somewhat amazed that he ended up at Yale. For years, academics came in second to what he calls his "preoccupation with sports and women." He went to the University of Miami and later to Arizona State University, choosing both schools because he could train year-round in tennis.
Tennis had opened up a whole new world for a boy grappling with his self-esteem and relearning how to live, from dressing himself to caring for his body to getting around. Most important, his success on the tennis courts moved him, in his mind, from a paraplegic in a wheelchair to an athlete striving for excellence.
Over five years, Martin won 57 national and international championship titles. At 15, he was the youngest winner of the U.S. Open for wheelchair tennis. He also won doubles, and the next year he won singles again. At 18, he ranked 21st in the world.
But after nearly a decade of eight or nine tournaments a year, Martin realized that in order to be the best in his sport, he would have to devote himself completely: Get a private coach, train full time, spend more money and sacrifice everything to tennis. He didn't think he wanted to do all that. His thoughts turned elsewhere.
In the months after the shooting, he had so many questions about his own injury, and his doctors always seemed to have all the answers. In the back of his mind ever since then, he thought about medicine. Perhaps he should try. "I didn't want to be one of those people who wished they had attempted something," he recalls, "who looked back on their life and said, 'I wish I had tried it.' "
As he had always done in the past, he turned to his mother, Sharan Kuperman. After the shooting, she had encouraged him to try anything. From the beginning, "she had this real go-get-'em attitude," Martin says now.
Ask Kuperman, and she says she was just feeding off her son's optimism and energy, even at the worst moments after the shooting. Both she and Ryan's stepfather, David Kuperman--the gunman's first target--were besieged by guilt because they had been spared and Ryan paralyzed. Sharan threw herself into caring for her injured son, the medical bills mounted, and tension built in the family. Within a few years, Sharan and David divorced.
Throughout it all, Ryan and Sharan have remained very close. When Ryan came to his mother and asked her whether she thought he was smart enough for medical school, she said yes. "Because I knew," Kuperman says now, "that if he wanted it bad enough, he could be smart enough."
Once again, Martin began thinking day-to-day. "Let me just see," he thought, "if I can hang with one of these pre-med classes." Martin had taken hardly any science courses before his junior year. When he did, he found himself working unexpectedly hard, and he aced them.
But when he applied to medical schools, he was disappointed that his top choices rejected his application. Then, however, a man who was taken by his drive and focus stepped in.
David Kessler, formerly head of the Food and Drug Administration and now dean of the Yale School of Medicine, had met Martin through his mother, who works at the FDA. Kessler followed Martin's tennis career and heard that he was interested in medicine. Now he offered Martin an unusual opportunity: Come to Yale as a special student, take first-year med courses, and then with those credentials, apply to the schools again.
At Yale, Martin not only did as well as the first-year students; he did better than most, receiving honors.
"Ryan blew those courses away," Kessler says. "From the beginning, I knew he would be a great doctor, a fabulous physician. He will understand what a patient may be experiencing in ways that no one else could. What was fascinating was to see the level of commitment and to watch how intensely he focused. Watch this kid. This is no ordinary student. This isn't even an ordinary disabled student."
After that year, Martin applied to a number of schools and got into several--including Yale.
Holding His Own
Martin drives to school in an old gray Buick Le Sabre with manual controls. He wheels to the driver's side, slides in, pops off his chair's wheels, tosses them in back and sets the chair seat on the back seat. It takes about three seconds.
He lives in an apartment by himself, with his golden Lab, Kuma. In Arizona, he lived with a woman for two years--she was a runner--but they broke up before he came back East.
Several times a week, he works out at the Yale gym, lifting weights and shooting hoops. His friends say that it doesn't take long to forget Martin is in a chair, especially after seeing his speed and agility on the basketball court.
During first-year orientation, his class went through a grueling outdoor obstacle course, and everything anyone else did, Martin did, too.
Over the summer, Martin joined other students at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratories near Bar Harbor, Maine. The Maine lab was hardly wheelchair-accessible. "It's outside and rough," says John Forrest, who directs the Mount Desert program. "There are roots and rocks everywhere. But he just flew over everything. He essentially muscled his way up Cadillac Mountain."
Sometimes Martin fell, but he simply got back up.
Once, Forrest found Martin on the third floor of a building that had no ramps or elevators. Some friends had carried him up. Another time, Forrest came into his laboratory, and there was Martin, perched high in a lab chair. Forrest was taken aback.
Martin glanced down and flashed a grin. "My legs," he said, "are working today."
Martin and other students working with Forrest are studying the molecular defect that causes cystic fibrosis. This year, he also will tackle neuroscience, biostatistics, embryology and anatomy (the school gave him a lower cadaver table). Maybe someday he will treat children, Martin says, knowing he could change his mind with each class.
After med school, Martin understands he will face some patients who won't want a doctor in a wheelchair. "There are prejudices," says Nancy R. Angoff, Yale medical school associate dean of student affairs. "It's just like some patients don't want to be treated by a woman or a member of a minority.
"But many other patients will identify with Ryan," she says.
And for the medical students and teachers, she says, "Ryan is going to make us reflect every day about our humanity. Ryan is going to make us stop and see the big picture and think about who we are, what we're about and how lucky we are. It's the best thing that could have happened to this medical school."