Find Your Passion: Facing Daily Pain, White Seeks to Help Others Manage Theirs

By David Miller
September 23, 2013

Jessica WhiteFollowing a chance meeting in a hospital waiting room, UA graduate Jessica White says she began replacing excuses with solutions.

At just 3-months-old, Jessica White lost movement in her right leg, and doctors labored to discover the cause. Test after test followed, but doctors couldn’t reach a consensus for diagnosis.

“In the end, [the doctors] determined that finding the answer wouldn’t change the outcome,” says White, a May 2013 University of Alabama graduate.  

White slowly regained movement in her leg. But, due to damaged nerves, her future was affected. She was diagnosed with a “drop foot,” a gait abnormality in which the dropping of the forefoot happens due to weakness, damage to the peroneal nerve or paralysis of the muscles in the anterior portion of the lower leg. The nerve damage White suffered caused her right leg to grow slower than her left.

The condition puts tremendous stress on the hips, which can become unaligned due to the unnatural movements. As a result, those with the disability typically suffer chronic pain. 

The Huntsville native was fitted for orthotics before she took her first step and continues wearing them. She wore a brace on her hips every night for two years, and she’s had multiple surgeries on her foot and knee.

“These experiences made my initial view on medicine very negative,” White says. “I dreaded my doctor visits. They were filled with cold hands, funny smells, and, undoubtedly, bad news.”

White experiences pain daily and has “never had the body of a young person,” she says, despite being 22-years-old. While she’ll continue facing her own pain in the future, she’s diligently working to help others manage theirs. 

Jessica White
A former member of UA’s Honors College and a psychology major, White now has her sights set on medical school.

White hopes to become a doctor and help what she calls an “underserved” population: people who suffer chronic pain. A former member of the University’s Honors College, White has worked in the department of psychology’s pain lab, where graduate students and undergraduates participate in pain research with faculty members.

Under the guidance of Dr. Bev Thorn, chair of the psychology department and director of the UA Pain Management Team, White conducted research that charts self-reported pain scores and physiological indicators in emergency room patients at DCH Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, where she also worked as a scribe.

White presented her research at the Society of Behavioral Medicine conference in San Francisco in March.

“I read an article on physiological responses (heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure) to pain,” White recalls. “I expected someone with 10/10 pain score would have elevated blood pressure and heart rate. However, previous research has shown these two things were not related. We (UA pain management team) thought we could try these other measures. … What does a chronic person feel that an acute person may not?

“The initial findings are surprising that the physiological responses don’t correlate with the self-reported pain score,” White adds. “It’s still surprising to me, because you’d think your body would respond to the pain you’re in.”

Her inspiration

If it makes you cringe or seems a bit weird, there’s a good chance White is fascinated by it.

Whether it’s “strange bacteria” or unusual injuries to the human body, White says she frequently embraces things from which others withdraw.

It’s a personality trait she shares with her grandmother, a former microbiologist who worked for a pathologist. This grandmother’s encouragement of a career in medicine took on more meaning for White following a chance encounter in a hospital waiting room when White was 7. 

Prior to this, White says, she was “weary of medicine and everything to do with it,” even routine trips to her orthopedist. But a patient, with physical limitations far greater than hers, showed her it’s possible to achieve goals in spite of a negative prognosis.

The patient, a young boy with no hair and orthotics on both legs, sat down next to White and struck up a conversation.

Jessica White
White says if a medical issue makes you cringe or seems “weird,” there’s a good chance she’s fascinated by it.

“My first instinct was that this boy would be insecure about how he looked or how he was perceived by others,” White said, “but, instead, this strange boy began talking to me as if we were old friends. The conversation that we had was so sincere that the normal agony of the waiting room was lost to me. I was baffled at how someone who had appeared to have suffered so much already -- and most likely had much more suffering ahead -- could act as if these disabilities were irrelevant. 

“After meeting him, it was clear he believed he was the luckiest kid alive, but I was confused as how this could be until it was his time for him to go see his doctor, and she came out personally to greet him,” White says. “A personal reception was not something I had ever witnessed in all my visits. His excitement was obvious as he clumsily ran to her. Then I remembered what he had said earlier. He told me that he had her to thank for all the progress he had made. Instead of blaming the doctors, as I did, he embraced all their hard work. I will never forget that boy.”

From that point forward, White recognized barriers only to overcome them. Riding a horse, wearing high heels and playing volleyball were once thought to be impossible by White, but she has since accomplished those goals.

“Excuses were replaced with solutions,” she says. “I realized that life was a gift, and I was determined to make the most of it.”

The path to med school

Pre-med majors have a difficult choice when they enter college: what to major in as an undergrad.
On one hand, they want to pick a major that will help the transition to medical school; on the other, they want to select a major they enjoy and find useful.

For White, who loves biology, her path to psychology came down to a “vibe” she got when entering Gordon Palmer Hall, which houses the psychology department.

“Now, don't get me wrong, I love my premed classes with their shiny new labs and large auditorium classrooms, but there is also another side to me,” White says. “I love Gordon Palmer; it is old and full of character. The classes are small, and the teachers just look like psychology teachers. I knew that I could be a doctor no matter what my undergraduate major was. So I chose psychology because it felt right. And because I knew that I would learn so much biology once I got to med school but maybe not enough of other things.”

White says she has also earned valuable experience in medicine. She became a scribe at DCH Medical Center in Tuscaloosa in August 2011. As a scribe, White collaborated with emergency room physicians and fulfilled the primary secretarial and non-clinical functions of the busy physician or mid-level provider.

“The physicians that I work with have taught me so much,” White says. “Not just about what elevated troponin levels mean or what an abnormal chest X-ray looks like, but about how to deal with the stresses of being a doctor, and how rewarding it is in the end.”

White graduated in May and is taking a year away from school to travel, including participating in a six-week medical internship in Madurai, South India.  She has taken the MCAT and is wrapping up her med school applications.   She’s unsure where she wants to attend medical school but she is considering the New England area, where most of her family resides.

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.