Head to the Heart January 15, 2024

Living with muscular dystrophy, a renowned neurologist embodies resilience in his life and work

As a young medical student at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Dr. John Quinlan knew that his early ambitions of becoming a country doctor were not going to pan out. He was diagnosed at age 15 with muscular dystrophy, which causes progressive degeneration of the skeletal muscles.

Since then, he’s had to find ways to deal with his physical limitations while pursuing his dreams. “I had imagined myself in a sheepskin jacket driving a Jeep doing house calls in the wintertime, which wasn’t going to work so well, and surgical fields were out of the question,” he says. In medical school, he carried a solid-sided briefcase so that when he fell down, he could set it on one end and push himself back up again.

But today, Quinlan, 70, is looking back at a nearly 40-year-long career as an acclaimed educator and clinician of neuromuscular disorders, which include such diseases as myasthenia gravis, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and his own.
For 35 years, he was a professor of neurology and the medical director of the neuromuscular center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute (UCGNI). In 2021, he received the Ted M. Burns Humanism in Neurology Award, which honors “a member of the neurology profession exhibiting humanism through humble leadership, advocacy, innovation, and creativity.”

As one of a relatively small number of doctors with a disability—they make up an estimated 1% of the profession—Quinlan brings a unique perspective to his interactions with students, patients, and design professionals. He represented both patients and clinicians during the planning of the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute (UCGNI), helping to ensure that the new facility would be welcoming to all.

“John is a talented neuromuscular physician with a wonderful and engaging personality who is beloved by students and colleagues,” says Dr. Joe Broderick, professor and director at UCGNI. “His patients are very attached to him. They see him as someone who knows what they’re going through. He can speak to the needs of patients, as well as to the needs of physicians with disabilities.”

Throughout his life, Quinlan has been able to adapt to his disability as it has become more debilitating. He grew up in the small town of Mundelein in the northern suburbs of Chicago and was inspired by the family doctor, a funny and engaging man named John Ring (who would later be elected president of the American Medical Association), to consider a career in medicine. As a freshman, Quinlan joined the football team. But when he found himself getting weaker rather than stronger from training, his parents took him to see Dr. Ring and then an orthopedist, who suspected muscular dystrophy. After he got his diagnosis, he took up tennis, but switched to doubles when he couldn’t run quickly enough for singles. When he was in medical residency, around age 30, he started getting around the hospital and seeing patients on an electric scooter; at age 60, he switched to a wheelchair, which requires less upper mobility. Over time, he cut back on his clinical practice and increased his teaching workload. “Physically, I’ve always been older and more limited in my abilities, but my interests and ambitions are young,” he laughs.

Even after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 15, Dr. Quinlan continued to lead an active life. He switched from football to tennis, maintained a healthy relationship with his parents, and enjoyed being on the water.

Even after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 15, Dr. Quinlan continued to lead an active life.

a doctor with muscular distrophy sits in his wheelchair and talks with a woman in the hallway of a medical facility

“He was the best teacher in the medical school for years and has been a big influence on so many students,” says Dr. Yuebing Li, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic and a former resident of Quinlan’s. “He likes to simplify things. As residents, we tend to think about multiple possibilities when approaching a case. He would say: ‘If you have more than three diagnoses, you don’t really know what’s going on.’”

Quinlan has brought a similar clarity to how the built environment can be improved for people with disabilities. In 2017, the hospital began planning the UCGNI, a $68 million, 114,000-square-foot neuroscience center dedicated to outpatient care, research, and education. He served on both the patient advisory committee and the staff advisory committee, providing input to the design team. “He really helped us understand the human experience,” says Amy Sickeler, who led the interior design of the Institute.

As a patient representative, Quinlan was very focused on the bathrooms. “They are so important to a handicapped person, and I have struggled with challenges throughout different phases of my weakness,” he says. “Why is any toilet in a hospital not handicapped height?”

With input from Quinlan and other patients, the design team fashioned the UCGNI building with special attention to wheelchair accessibility, going well beyond what is required for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance. For example, in addition to having toilets that are at handicapped height, the spacious restrooms have benches and sliding barn doors for ease of access. Additionally, on the first floor, there are a set of restrooms right in front of the elevators so patients—some who travel long distances to reach the center—can easily access them before getting treatment. The garage, meanwhile, has larger parking spaces and perfectly level floors to make it easier on people transitioning from cars to wheelchairs.

The distinctive building is notably veiled with a mesh screen that diffuses natural light and shields patients from glare, which is critical for people who have neurological impairments that affect their vision. Wide corridors allow staff to observe the gait of patients. Unusual for an outpatient center, the UCGNI also has an extensive occupational therapy area, including a mock apartment where staff can assist patients as they perform everyday tasks like washing dishes and working on a computer to help them regain self-sufficiency.

One particular issue that Dr. Quinlan raised about the original UC Medical Center, which had been built in the late 1960s, was that the rooms for EMG (electromyography) testing, which measures muscular response, were a tight squeeze. The design team addressed his concerns. In the new center, the exam rooms are much larger and are equipped with sliding barn doors, grab bars, and adjustable-height tables to assist with examinations. “We really looked at how you move patients around and how they move themselves around,” he says.

Even in retirement, Quinlan plans to keep advancing the medical profession and thinking about how it can accommodate disabilities—both for patients and practitioners. For example, he wants to collaborate with university colleagues on the development of specialized products—one of many ideas he hasn’t been able to devote himself to until now. “I know these problems so intimately well, where another person wouldn’t,” he says, putting a fine point on the value of first-hand experience of mobility challenges when designing for accessibility.

As he reflects back, he notes that his disability has made him more empathetic. “It has made me more understanding,” he says. “That’s true of my whole career in medicine. You have these notions about what people are like and how they should be living their lives, but when you see the things they’re dealing with, you realize you just don’t know what’s going on. I’m grateful for that insight.”

“I know these problems so intimately well, where another person wouldn’t. It has made me more understanding.”
More from Dr. Quinlan

Reading recommendation:
Physical Intelligence: The Science of How the Body and the Mind Guide Each Other Through Life. It was written by Scott Grafton, a neuroscientist, who was taking a camping trip and learned to make his way along the route through sight and touch.

What could be improved in medicine:
We don’t look back enough and ask, “How could you have done it better?” Constantly looking back at your performance is not really blended into medicine right now. Education has such an amazing return on investment, so we should definitely start there.

The power of optimism:
I’m Catholic, and whenever something bad is happening, I always think, “Maybe it’s going to be a good thing in the end.” Even more, as my life unfolds, I think, “This is going to be a good thing in the end.” Whatever I’ve been dealing with, that’s my overriding thought.