Practicing Medicine Despite Disability

Practicing Medicine Despite Disability

Rutgers graduate continues to savor doctor-patient ties, even after catastrophic accident

Gary Witman (with his wife, Dee Dee, in Colorado) is a physician who educates patients about the use of medical marijuana.
Photo: Courtesy of Gary Witman

"I don’t think of myself as a quadriplegic or a tetraplegic. I think of myself as someone who can’t do all the things I used to do."
– Gary Witman

Media Contact
Carla Cantor

When he lost the use of his arms and legs in a freak accident seven summers ago, emergency room doctor Gary Witman was certain of one thing: He would continue to practice medicine as he had done for more than three decades.

It just wasn’t clear – yet – what that career would look like.

Moreover, Witman had no clue at the time that it would involve working with and educating patients about the use of medical cannabinoids – marijuana, in more common terms.

The same accident that shattered the spine of the Rutgers alumnus also shattered his ability to stride down the familiar halls of the emergency department at Good Samaritan Medical Center of Brockton, Mass.

But the daily contact with others in need was embedded too deeply to let an encounter with a rogue wave off a Narragansett, R.I., beach destroy his life, he says now.

“My love of medicine and the love for my patients kept me from giving up,” says the Providence, R.I., resident, who graduated from Rutgers with honors in biological sciences in 1971 before going on to the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center for his medical degree.

He credits what to him was a surprising grade of 98 in a Rutgers physiology exam senior year with cementing his decision to go into medicine.

After additional training at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Brown University and Yale, where he was the American Cancer Society scholar in medical oncology, Witman became the program director for projects involving clinical oncology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he stayed until 1982.

But it was his most recent role before the accident -- running the emergency room department at Good Samaritan, where he’d been on staff since 1997 -- that left him determined not to lose that special doctor-patient relationship.

Witman, who uses a wheelchair to get around, started applying for any medical-related job he heard about once the grueling months of hospitalizations were behind him.

“Medical director, administrator, whatever – no one would have me because of my disability,” recalls the Manhattan native, who grew up in Fair Lawn. The job search briefly led him to a post as board member of organizations that provided independent living arrangements, but soon the pull to interact with patients on a daily basis proved too strong to resist.

And so Gary Witman, who has not had as much as a puff of marijuana since his undergraduate days in the 1960s, went to work for Canna Docs, an organization that evaluates patients in states where the medical form of the drug is legal – 37 of them and counting.

He eventually rose to the position of executive medical director, where his mandate was to determine whether the benefits of the treatment outweighed the risks in individuals living with hepatitis-C, cancer, lupus, severe osteo- or rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, seizure disorders, opioid addiction or movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

Most typical, Witman says, would be a veteran of the U.S. military who served in Afghanistan or Iraq and who came back with terrible nightmares after living in a war zone.  Diagnosis: Post-traumatic stress disorder, 100 percent service related.

“My job is to get people like this back in the labor pool, provide them with dignity and the ability to work, with medical marijuana,” Witman says.

Since last summer, he has carried out that mandate as a physician with the Health and Wellness Corporation, which serves patients in Massachusetts. His patients range in age from 18 to 98. Working an eight-hour day, scheduling visits for every 30 minutes, Witman sees 16 to 22 men and women a day, five days a week.

It’s a grueling schedule, he acknowledges, but even at 68 he has no plans to retire, nor to give up the lecturing he does regularly at Harvard, Brown and Yale about the use of medicinal cannabis.

Losing his mobility hasn’t restricted his love for travel, a passion he and his wife, Dee Dee, a political fundraiser, now pursue courtesy of a specially outfitted Mercedes Sprinter van.

“Before the accident, we visited every continent except Antarctica and Australia,” Witman says. Since that day in August of 2011, they’ve toured the Badlands of South Dakota; Devils Tower, Wyoming; Mount Rushmore, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, among other places.

They also make regular jaunts across the country to visit their children – a son and two daughters – and three grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Witman continues to be involved in what he calls the “quad world,” advocating for others and serving as a resource from both his personal perspective and his experiences as a physician.

The accident that loomed large in his life continues to be a factor, but not a defining one.

“I don’t think of myself as a quadriplegic or a tetraplegic,” he told a newspaper interviewer in 2011. “I think of myself as someone who can’t do all the things I used to do.”  

Media Contact
Carla Cantor