If you have news to share, comments or suggestions about Findings, we want to hear from you. Send us your news by clicking here.
National Honor Recognizes Doc's Fight Against Muscular Dystrophy
Published September 2009
When John Quinlan, MD, learned that he had won a prestigious national award from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), his reaction spoke volumes about the high standards he holds himself to as a clinician, researcher and teacher.
“There’s a sense that I should have accomplished more with my life at this point,” says Quinlan, who is 56. “So in a way, this serves as motivation.”
Quinlan, a professor in the neurology department at the College of Medicine and director of the UC MDA Adult Clinic, was selected as the recipient of the MDA’s 2010 Robert Ross National Personal Achievement Award. He officially received the honor during the 2009 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon over the Labor Day weekend.
The award, initiated in 1992 and named in honor of the MDA’s longtime chief executive who died in 2006, recognizes the accomplishments and community service of people with disabilities caused by any of the diseases in the MDA’s program.
Quinlan was chosen from dozens of recipients of statewide awards based on his personal success, his professional achievements and his dedication to helping others with muscular dystrophy and related diseases.
Quinlan has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, a genetic muscle disorder which causes prominent weakness of arms, legs and face. He uses a motorized scooter to get around the medical campus, from his office in the Stetson Building to University Hospital, the Medical Sciences Building and the Medical Arts Building, where the adult clinic is located.
“I hold myself to the same standards as anybody who’s a medical professional,” says Quinlan. “Right now, I’d like to be a better clinician, to be more successful at research and to be a better teacher.” (That’s another example of his high standards—Quinlan has won a Golden Apple and two Silver Apples for teaching excellence at UC.)
Quinlan was born in Waukegan, Ill., and grew up in Mundelein, between Chicago and the Wiscon-sin border. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 15 at the Mayo Clinic, an institution that would later play a major role in his development as a clinician and researcher—and in his arrival at UC two decades later.
“I was in a weight-lifting program for football in high school,” he recalls, “and I noticed I wasn’t making progress in my bench press. I wasn’t gaining strength; I was kind of breaking even.
“I went to my family doctor, who said that my shoulders ‘looked funny’ and sent me to an orthopedist. The orthopedist suggested that I might have muscular dystrophy, so my family took me to the Mayo Clinic.”
After the initial disappointment, Quinlan took the diagnosis in stride.
“I greatly respect Dr. Andrew Engel at the Mayo Clinic,” he says. “He said that while my disease would probably get progressively worse, most people with it live to late adulthood and I could expect to have a pretty full life.
“So knowing that it was progressive was helpful to me—just understanding that the increasing weakness was part of the disease made me more comfortable with what comes.”
Quinlan went on to graduate from the University of Notre Dame and entered the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
“I had a dream of becoming a country doctor,” he recalls. “At that point rural medicine was very underserved, and I was thinking, give me one of those Jeeps, a sheepskin jacket, going to breakfast in the morning and saying hi to your patients—that’s kind of why I went to medical school.”
But reality intervened—“you’re never sure what’s coming around the next corner,” as Quinlan puts it—and he saw that his physical limitations would keep him from such a lifestyle. Inspired by early role models such as Alan McComas, MD, an innovative muscular researcher, and Adrian Upton, MD, a gifted neurologist, he gravitated toward neurology.
“I could see I’d get general clinical skills, I’d be able to pursue an interest in neuromuscular diseases and do research, so then the whole game plan became pretty clear,” he says.
Quinlan interned for one year in medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and completed his neurology residency and two fellowships at the Mayo Clinic. It was at the Mayo Clinic where in 1982 he got to know a resident and UC College of Medicine graduate named Joe Broderick who liked to talk about his hometown of Cincinnati. Five years later, Broderick—always planning to return to his home city—helped lure Quinlan to UC.
“John is not only a terrific specialist in neuromuscular disease, his first-hand experience in living with muscular dystrophy makes him extraordinarily sensitive to the needs of his patients who see in him not just a great physician but someone who walks the road with them,” says Broderick, chair of the neurology department since 2000.
“The best compliment that I can give John is that people soon after meeting him quickly forget that he has physical limitations. I can’t think of a better role model for what it means to be a physician and a human being.”
Quinlan puts his future in simple terms: “I’m not done,” he says.
“We are all different, and we all face different problems. But life has an amazing number of possibilities.
“Even when a disease eliminates 50 percent of the choices, there are still wonderful opportunities out there.”