Few people who use white canes have progressed through rigorous college science courses to become medical doctors, but Marcia Beare says she’s ready for a white lab coat and medical school.
Beare, 46, of Martin, completely lost her sight at age two as a result of Retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that typically affects young children. She was the first blind child to be mainstreamed in Allegan County schools throughout her K-12 education.
Necessary classroom accommodations were sometimes hard to come by in the rural Martin school, which educates kindergarten through 12th grade children under one roof. But Marcia was a strong student.
Science was her passion but academic advisers steered her toward a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in social work, believing social work to be a profession where vision was less important.
Marcia was a social worker at Hope Network, and managed the Martin Resource Center, a charity started by her parents Harvey and Carol Visser, before joining Seeds of Grace, a free health care clinic in Allegan.
She has served as executive director since August 2011, when the clinic separated from it’s founder, who was facing felony sexual misconduct charges, and reorganized under the name Renewed Hope.
She’s proud to have led the clinic through turmoil that nearly doomed it, but she experienced a gnawing feeling that God had called her to be a doctor.
“Pursuing the goals I want, and not the goals others describe as attainable for me, makes all the difference to me,” Marcia said. “I feel like a complete person for the first time in my life.”
In 2011 Marcia returned to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where she had earned her undergraduate degree, to take the advanced science classes she would need to apply for medical school.
She is on target to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in spring 2015. She has already applied to 10 osteopathic medical schools, including the one at Michigan State University in East Lansing, hoping to be chosen for an August start date.
Blindness is a formidable barrier to preparing for a career in the sciences.
Even with good quantitative and critical thinking skills, students who are blind are at a disadvantage in learning science because there is so much graphical information that is not readily available in non-visual formats.
Students like Marcia, who were born blind or lost their vision very early in life, often lack a frame of reference that sighted persons would use to describe objects to them.
Diagrams, charts and graphs must be reproduced as raised-line drawings by a $3,000 PIAF (Picture In A Flash) tactile graphic making machine so they can be read with the fingertips. Interpreting such images requires time and determination.
Equations can be written in linear form with a Brailler, but this process makes them difficult to read and manipulate.
Drawing is also important, especially in chemistry. Beare tried various assistive products, but what worked best was a wire screen in a wooden frame that her father constructed for her. Using the strong point of a Paper Mate pen (no other brand works, she claims), she can draw on thick paper placed on top of the screen. Indentations on the paper made by the pen moving over the wire screen allow her to read and label her drawings.
Although Calvin College’s high-tech PIAF machine -- and the low-tech drawing screen built by her dad -- have been indispensable, Marcia said her greatest allies in education have been instructors, lab partners and paid note-takers who are willing to help.
“Physics was very difficult for me to get through,” Marcia said. “I didn’t realize until I got into the course that my algebra wasn’t up to the level it need to be. My poor physics professor was essentially teaching me physics and math.”
To Braille, or not to Braille.
Marcia primarily uses audible versions of her textbooks, or electronic versions she can read with a text-to-voice screen reader.
Nevertheless, she did learn to read Braille, a tactile form of writing, as a young girl from a specialist who visited her three hours each week at the Martin School.
The problem with writing in Braille, Marcia said, is that no one she knew could read it.
She grew to think of Braille as obsolete.
She was surprised, therefore, when she was able to take the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) in Braille. She expects to learn her scores by March 1.
Marcia is buoyed by the example of Dr. David Hartman, a psychiatrist in Roanoke, Va., whom she met in 2013. Hartman lost his sight at age eight. Nine medical schools turned him down before Temple University gave him a chance.
Hartman’s quest to become a doctor is depicted in the 1975 movie “Journey From Darkness.”
Good doctors make a difference.
Marcia has endured more than her share of interactions with medical doctors outside of the Renewed Hope clinic.
She had brain surgery in 2003 to remove a tumor on her right frontal lobe. The tumor – which doctors said formed as a result of radiation treatments she had as a toddler to arrest the Retinoblastoma – enveloped her olfactory nerve, threatening her sense of smell.
An avid equestrian, Marcia fell from her horse in 2010 and shattered her arm in more than 10 places.
After brain surgery Marcia worked hard to regain her professional vocabulary. After the badly broken arm, she battled to regain full use of her hand.
But the biggest setback, she said, came in 2011 when she lost her husband. John Beare, a machinist, to Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, a rare blood cancer. He was 52.
These days Marcia and her dog guide, David, stay busy preparing for medical school, that long-held dream whose importance has been confirmed by two decades of living.
Marcia also makes time to counsel staff of non-profit organizations embroiled in turmoil beyond their own making. She also participates in the public speaking club Toastmasters.