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Blind student has physician's touch

Lack of sight didn't stymie quest for MD

MADISON, Wis. -- The young medical student was nervous as he slid the soft, thin tube down into the patient's windpipe. It was a delicate maneuver -- and he knew he had to get it right.

Tim Cordes leaned over the patient as his professor and a team of others closely monitored his every step. Carefully, he positioned the tube, waiting for the special signal that oxygen was flowing.

The anesthesia machine soon emitted tones to confirm that the tube was in the trachea and carbon dioxide was present. Cordes then double-checked with a stethoscope. All was OK. He had completed the intubation.

The procedure is tricky enough for any medical student, but Cordes's accomplishment was even more remarkable than usual. He is blind.

Several times over two weeks, he performed the difficult task at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. His professor, Dr. George Arndt, marveled at his student's skills.

''He was 100 percent," the doctor says. ''He did it better than the people who could see."

Cordes has mastered much in his 28 years: Jujitsu. Biochemistry. Water-skiing. Musical composition. Any one of these accomplishments would be impressive. Together, they're dazzling. And now, there's more luster for his gold-plated resume with a new title: Doctor.

Cordes finished medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the top sixth of his class, earning honors and admirers along the way.

''He was confident, he was professional, he was respectful and he was a great listener," says Sandy Roof, a nurse practitioner who worked with Cordes as part of a training program in a small-town clinic.

Without sight, Cordes had to learn how to identify clusters of spaghetti-thin nerves and vessels in cadavers, study X-rays, read EKGs and patient charts, examine slides showing slices of the brain, diagnose rashes -- and more.

He used a variety of special tools, including raised line drawings, a computer that simultaneously reads into his earpiece whatever he types, a visual describer, a portable printer that allowed him to write notes for patient charts, and a device called an Optacon that has a small camera with vibrating pins that help his fingers feel images.

''It was kind of whatever worked," Cordes says.

''Sometimes you can psych yourself out and anticipate problems that don't materialize. . . . You can sit there and plan for every contingency or you just go out and do things."

That's been his philosophy much of his life. Cordes was just 5 months old when he was diagnosed with Leber's disease. He wore glasses by age 2, and gradually lost his sight. At age 16, when his peers were getting their car keys, he took his first steps with a guide dog.

Still, blindness didn't stop him.

He wrestled and earned a black belt in tae kwon do and jujitsu. An academic whiz, he graduated as valedictorian at the University of Notre Dame.

Cordes finished medical school in December but still is working on his PhD, studying the structure of a protein involved in a bacteria that causes pneumonia and other infections.

Though he spends 10 to 12 hours a day in the lab, Cordes also carried the Olympic torch when it made its way through Wisconsin in 2002 (he runs four miles twice a week) and has managed to give a few motivational speeches and accept an award or two.

He's even found time to fall in love; he's engaged to a medical school student.

But Tim Cordes doesn't want to be cast as the noble hero of a Hallmark special.

''I just think that you deal with what you're dealt," he says. ''I've just been trying to do the best with what I've got. I don't think that's any different than anybody else."

He also shuns suggestions his IQ leaves his peers in the dust. ''I just work hard and study," he says.

The dean of the medical school, Dr. Philip Farrell, says the faculty determined early on that Cordes would have ''a successful experience. Once you decide that, it's only a question of options and choices."

Farrell worried a bit how Cordes might fare in the hospital settings, but says he needn't have. ''One should never assume that any student is going to have a barrier, an obstacle, that they can't overcome," he said.

Cordes said he thinks people accepted him because most of his training was in a teaching hospital, where he blended in with other medical students. One patient apparently didn't even realize the young man treating him was blind.

Some professors say Cordes compensates for his lack of sight with his other senses -- especially his incredible sense of touch.

''You can describe what it feels like to put your hand on the aorta and feel someone's blood flowing through it," he says, his face lighting up, ''but until you feel it, you really don't get a sense of what that's like."

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