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From Medical School to Mastering Her Own Life

August 19, 2021

When looking back on her time at Craig Hospital, Sam Schroth can’t decide which memories stand out the most. Maybe it was playing wheelchair tennis, Hobie Day at the reservoir, visiting with the dogs on Newfie Night, gardening, testing out her wheelchair skills in public, or taking patient education classes. According to Sam, the more time that passes, the more she appreciates her rehab days at Craig.

Sam boating with members of her care team.

“It’s strange to say, but I look back on my time at Craig fondly,” Sam says. “In an odd way, I loved it. It was an important time of my life — a bittersweet time of coming into myself as a person with a spinal cord injury.”

Since her three-month stay at Craig in 2013, Sam has lived up to her motto to “never sit still”—a life philosophy she gave voice to in a blog posted a year after her injury. After setting aside her original dream of becoming a veterinarian — wheelchairs don’t lend themselves well to horse stalls — she got busy reaching new dreams, like becoming Ms. Wheelchair America, completing marathons in her racing wheelchair (she’s currently training for the Chicago marathon), and the biggest of all: going to medical school to become a physician scientist, earning both an M.D. and a Ph.D. Through it all, her parents and friends have been at her side.

“My mom is definitely my rock,” she says. “My whole family has been such a great support.”

Besides learning to live her best life with a spinal cord injury, Sam also had a traumatic brain injury — something she emotionally struggled with more than her spinal cord injury early on. Being the valedictorian of her high school class, a big part of her identity was her ability to think, talk and learn fast. Sam was injured one week after graduating college.

“When I think back on the dual-injury — an SCI and a TBI — I chuckle a bit because I’ve always been a ‘go big or go home’ kind of girl. I just had to do it all,” she jokes. “It was a weird badge of honor to have both. But also it was like, ‘Holy crap! I’ve got both things to deal with!’”

Sam learned how to live with the effects of her brain injury. After all, she’s now beginning her fifth year of graduate school and has loads of memorization under her belt.

“As the surgeons told my mom after my accident, I’m living on bonus time, and I’m trying to make the best of that bonus time,” Sam adds.

Sam lives alone in Chicago with her two cats. It’s another dream she’s tackled — living on her own with a disability — and she enjoys navigating herself to school and to various Chicago cafes in search of yet another perfect cup of coffee. She attends Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine and is currently conducting immunology-related research in the context of heart transplantation.

Sam is also involved in advocacy work to increase awareness around disabilities among doctors and medical trainees. She is an active board member of the Disability Advocacy Coalition in Medicine, an interprofessional student organization that seeks to improve disability-related education across a variety of health professional training programs. Sam’s got a few years to go before she earns her dual-degree as a doctor and scientist, but there’s no doubt she’ll get there.

“There’s a reason I’m in medical school, and that reason is very much Craig,” Sam says. “I don’t know what type of medicine I will one day practice, but as a person living with spinal cord injury, I’ve definitely been in the ‘patient role,’ and I look forward to being able to use that experience to positively impact and engage with my future patients.”

Sam names a culture of acceptance as the cornerstone of the Craig approach. She appreciates how doctors, therapists, nurses and technicians quickly identified her strengths and built on them — helping her figure out how to live the life she wanted, independently.

Besides graduate school, Sam enjoys writing. The catchphrase of her personal blog sums up her life: “Live Loud. Love God. Learn Lots.” To talk with Sam is like receiving a vitamin B shot. She’s a jolt of goodness and inspiration, making you want to vow to never waste a single moment of your life.

“Give yourself grace to learn, but push forward every day,” Sam concludes.