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 was set to emit musical tones to confirm the tube was in the trachea and carbon dioxide was present. Soon, Cordes heard the sounds. He double-checked with a stethoscope. All was OK. He had completed the intubation.
Several times over two weeks, Cordes performed this 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.”
Tim Cordes is blind.
He 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 has earned his M.D.
Many barriers to overcome
In a world where skeptics always seem to be saying, stop, this isn’t something a blind person should be doing, it was one more barrier overcome. There are only a handful of blind doctors in this country. But Cordes makes it clear he could not have joined this elite club alone.
“I signed on with a bunch of real team players who decided that things are only impossible until they’re done,” he says.
That’s modesty speaking. Cordes finished medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the top sixth of his class (he received just one B), earning honors, accolades and admirers along the way.
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 was the best way.”
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 as a crowd of 10,000 gave him a standing ovation.
Cordes finished medical school in December but still is working on his Ph.D., 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.
'You deal with what you're dealt'
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.”
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He also shuns suggestions his IQ leaves his peers in the dust.
“I just work hard and study,” he says. “If you’re not modest, you’re probably overestimating yourself.”
Through the years, plenty of people have underestimated Cordes.
That was especially true when he applied for medical school and was rejected by several universities, despite glowing references, two years of antibiotics research and a 3.99 undergraduate average as a biochemistry major.
Even when Wisconsin-Madison accepted him, Cordes says, he knew there was “some healthy skepticism.” But, he adds, “the people I worked with were top notch and really gave me a chance.”
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.
“We’ve learned from him as much as he’s learned from us ... one should never assume that any student is going to have a barrier, an obstacle, that they can’t overcome,” he says.
Sandy Roof, the nurse practitioner who worked with Cordes in a clinic in the town of Waterloo, wondered about that.
“My first reaction was the same as others’: How can he possibly see and treat patients?” she says. “I was skeptical, but within a short time I realized he was very capable, very sensitive.”
She recalls watching him examine a patient with a rash, feel the area, ask the appropriate questions — and come up with a correct diagnosis.
“He didn’t try and sell himself,” Roof adds. “He just did what needed to be done.”
'What's the dog for?'
Cordes says 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.
Cordes grins as he recalls examining a 7-year-old while making the hospital rounds with Vance, his German shepherd guide dog. The next day, he saw the boy’s father, who said, “I think you did a great job. (But) when my son got out, he asked me, ‘What’s the dog for?’"
With his sandy hair and choirboy’s face, Cordes became a familiar sight with Vance at the university hospital. The two were so good at navigating the maze of hallways that interns would sometimes ask Cordes for the quickest route to a particular destination.
Some professors say Cordes compensates for his lack of sight with his other senses — especially his incredible sense of touch. “He can pick up things with his hands you and I wouldn’t pick up — like vibrations,” says Arndt, the anesthesiology professor.
Cordes says some of his most valuable lessons came from doctors who believed in showing rather than telling.
“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.”
Dr. Yolanda Becker, assistant professor of surgery who performs transplants, noticed that Cordes had a talent for finding veins. “I tell the students, 'You have to feel them ... you just can’t look.’ For Tim, that was not an option.”
Becker soon became one more member of Tim Cordes’ fan club.
“He was a breath of fresh air,” she says. “He appreciated the fact people took time with him to feel the pulse, feel the grafts, feel where the kidneys are. ... He asked very good questions.”
Cordes’ training included observing surgery, helping treat psychiatric patients at a veterans hospital and traveling beyond the hospital walls to the rural corners of Wisconsin.
For six weeks, he experienced the front lines of medicine with Dr. Ben Schmidt, accompanying him from house calls to the hospital, tending to everything from heart trouble to chicken scratches.
Cars, camping and canoeing
They took time, too, to indulge Cordes’ passion for cars. Cordes, who reads Road & Track and Car and Driver magazines faithfully, is a Porsche fan. Knowing that, an internist in Schmidt’s clinic brought her husband’s metallic gray Turbo 911 to work one day. Schmidt took the wheel, roaring down the road with Cordes in the passenger seat — his keen hearing detecting the sounds of the valves opening up.
Cordes also enjoys camping and canoeing with his fiancee, Blue-leaf Hannah (her exotic first name comes from a character in “Centennial,” a James Michener novel). They met when both interviewed for medical school.
“I was just mostly curious how he was going to do it,” she says. “I must have asked him a million questions.”
“I figured she was just sizing up the competition,” he teases.
She was impressed. “He was smart and pretty modest,” she says.
“Handsome, too,” he adds.
“Yes, handsome,” she laughs.
They began dating and will marry this fall. It’s a match made for Mensa. Hannah is now in medical school. She already has a Ph.D. in pharmacology — her dissertation was on a human protein implicated in heart disease called thrombospondin.
“Too long for a Scrabble game,” Cordes jokes.
The two have talked about starting a research lab together someday.
Looking back on medical school, Cordes says he savored the chance to help deliver babies and observe surgery — things he’s probably not going to do again. “I just made it a point to treasure them while I had them,” he says.
He once thought he’d become a researcher but is now considering psychiatry and internal medicine. “The surprise for me was how much I liked dealing with the human side,” he says. “It took a little work to get over. I’m kind of a shy guy.”
Cordes plans to attend graduation ceremonies in May.
For now, he’s humble about his latest milestone.
“I might be the front man in the show but there were lot of people involved,” he says. “Everybody was giving a good effort for me and I wanted to do right by them.”
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