Med Student's Disability Helps Him Connect With Patients

RWJMS student Tom Pisano
Tom Pisano is one of 162 soon-to-be physicians in RWJMS’s Class of 2021 who discovered the name of the residency program where they will spend the next three to seven years training in the medical specialty of their choice.
Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Tom Pisano has been working on both a medical degree and doctoral degree in neuroscience to help to study and treat conditions like his own

When Tom Pisano started making rounds in his wheelchair, he worried his patients would consider him less capable than his Robert Wood Johnson Medical School peers.

However, he quickly found it had the opposite effect on patients and put them at ease.

“Patients are more willing to share what’s really bothering them,” said Pisano, 33, who was paralyzed from the chest down during a skiing accident at 19, during his first year of college. “Everyone has an internal struggle or challenge of some form, mine is just visible. That helps give me a connection with the patient.”

On Friday, during what is nationally known as Match Day, Pisano was one of 162 soon-to-be physicians in RWJMS’s Class of 2021 who discovered the name of the residency program where they will spend the next three to seven years training in the medical specialty of their choice.

Nine years after embarking on his journey to earn both a medical degree and doctoral degree in neuroscience, he was elated to learn he was matched with his first choices: an intern year at Mount Sinai Morningside-West, followed by a residency at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Neurology. He will continue his medical training working to study and treat neurological conditions.

Commencement 2021
Rutgers Today will be profiling some of our outstanding grads throughout the spring. Meet the Class of 2021 and read about the challenges they overcame.

“I feel so fortunate to have gotten exactly what I wanted for my preliminary and advanced neurology residency,” said Pisano, who grew up in Alexandria Township, NJ, but now lives in Manhattan with his partner. “I can spend my first year close to my partner, who is a pulmonary critical care fellow also at Mount Sinai Morningside-West.

Pisano is among 95 percent of his classmates at RWJMS who matched to the residency of their choice. Among them, 35 students matched to a New Jersey program: 22 students matched to a Robert Wood Johnson Medical School program, and four to  New Jersey Medical School. 

“Our medical students have my greatest respect for the work they have accomplished these past four years, and for the exemplary way that they have conducted themselves during the pandemic,” said Robert L. Johnson, interim dean of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and dean of New Jersey Medical School. “Their success and resilience are evidenced by the excellent programs into which our students matched to continue their specialized education as residents.”

When Pisano was in his first year in college at the University of Virginia, medical school was not his end goal. But after his accident and rehabilitation, the doctors told him he would never walk again, and he had to learn to navigate his new life. Pisano returned to school with a renewed focus.

“When you get down and depressed, you try to rethink your life. The new purpose of my life became to help others and have fun doing it. I found medicine and medical research was the way to do it,” said Pisano, who graduated from UVA in 2011 with a double major in cognitive science and biology.

He spent the following year trying to determine whether he wanted to attend medical school to become a neurologist or graduate school to become a researcher in the field of neurology. After a stint as a research participant and researcher in the spinal cord division of the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx, Pisano decided he would do both.

“I want be a neurologist who sees patients and I want to do clinical-based research that somehow improves my patients’ quality of life,” he said. “The best way I concluded doing that would be to treat few subsets of the population with diseases that I’m also researching.”

He knew he could accomplish this in New Jersey through a combined program that sandwiched a graduate research degree between four years of medical school. When he graduates in May, Pisano will be one of a handful of RWJMS classmates who started medical school at the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which became part of Rutgers in 2013.

Last year, after Pisano finished his graduate program and was wrapping up his third year of medical school, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to derail his progress. He wasn’t sure if he’d still be on track to graduate this May.

“When the world was collapsing in March or April, I thought, ‘I want to graduate, but if the attendings (physicians) teaching me have to go save lives, I’m more than OK with that,’” he said.

As a paraplegic, early on in the pandemic, he was initially concerned he may be at an increased risk because his respiratory function is not as strong as an able-bodied person. But Pisano was already exposed living with a physician who works with respiratory patients – including those with COVID-19 – so he accepted the risk that came with working in medical facilities during the pandemic. He’s taken extra care with his PPE and disinfecting his wheelchair and has remained healthy.

Pisano is looking forward to his clinical rotations in neurology, which start next week, and to positively impacting his patients’ lives as a physician and researcher – regardless of whether his work impacts his own injury.

“I’m sure some people get driven by wanting to be able to walk again. Keeping other things constant, I definitely would prefer to not have a spinal cord injury,’’ he said. “But, for me, I’m better able to understand patients and see the limitations of what they can and cannot do with these injuries, and perhaps it gives me a unique perspective as a researcher. At the end of my career, if I haven’t solved spinal cord injury, I’ll be able to sleep at night, as long as I have gotten to help other people.”