Health Sciences Campus

Arnold encourages audience to 'think big'

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

Dr. Jennifer Arnold spoke to students, residents, faculty and staff Tuesday at the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU. Photo by Cliff Hollis
GREENVILLE, N.C.  (Jan. 24, 2012)  —  Dr. Jennifer Arnold encouraged a midday audience in the auditorium of the East Carolina Heart Institute at East Carolina University on Tuesday to achieve their goals by thinking big, her motto for overcoming obstacles.

Star of the TLC show "The Little Couple," Arnold is 3 feet 2 inches tall, a neonatologist and medical director of the pediatric simulation center at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. Her short stature is caused by a rare form of skeletal dysplasia, which affects about one in 100,000 people.

She has had more than 30 surgeries that include putting rods in her back for scoliosis, replacing her hip and repairing her knees and ankles, all orthopedic problems from the dysplasia. Dr. Steven Kopits was the pediatric surgeon who did most of her childhood operations, and the inspiration for her medical career.

"If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn’t be able to walk...and I might not be here," Arnold said.

She has had more than 30 surgeries that include putting rods in her back for scoliosis, replacing her hip and repairing her knees and ankles, all orthopedic problems from the dysplasia. Dr. Steven Kopits was the pediatric surgeon who did most of her childhood operations, and the inspiration for her medical career.

"If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be able to walk...and I might not be here," said Arnold, who also is assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, division of neonatology.

She and her younger brother, David, grew up in Florida. She said she thought it was normal to have surgeries, to be in the hospital, to have short stature. As she grew older, she realized she was different, but didn't give up her dream being a doctor.

"No matter what your difference is, you can achieve your goal," she said. "Our hopes are really important because they can become reality when we try."

ECU nursing students Ashley Campbell of Statesville, Brianna Horn of Maysville and Allison Rowland of Beaufort have watched Arnold's show and were glad they were able to hear and see her in person. "I think it is inspirational because she was the patient once, and now she takes care of others," Campbell said.

Ashley Kinkaid, a pediatric resident from Pittsburgh, said she has watched almost every episode of "The Little Couple."

"She's inspirational, and then to see her give a talk in Greenville, it feels special," Kinkaid said.

Arnold said her parents encouraged her to use her brain and rely less on her body. "Getting a B was not acceptable in my house," she said. A cheerleader and student body president in high school, she went to the University of Miami where she continued to be active and involved as a student ambassador and resident adviser.

She became interested in science and decided to apply for medical school. "I didn't know how hard it would be," she said. "It was the first time I heard the word 'no.' Never listen to the nos."

She sent applications to 20 medical schools and only received two secondary applications. She doesn't know if it was discrimination that she didn't receive interviews because of her height. But she persevered.

On her first interview, she sat between a trauma surgeon and an internal medicine doctor, who peppered her with questions about how she would adapt to challenges of caring for patients. "With my step stool, I can do anything," said Arnold, who carries hand sanitizer wherever she goes because sinks are often mounted too high.

Statistics show 20 percent of physicians have a disability, and between 2 percent and 10 percent of practicing physicians have a disability. Fewer than 1 percent of medical students have a disability. "It doesn't match the general population," she said.

While legislation like the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act have helped provide protection for employment, compensation, benefits and reasonable accommodations, "we have a long way to go," she said.

As a pediatrician, Arnold said she has never had a complaint from a parent about her ability or size. "I've had a few take a step back, but after awhile, they know you are there to help take care of their critically ill child," she said.

She completed medical school at Johns Hopkins University and residency at the University of Pittsburgh. She was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's Safar Center for Resuscitative Medicine. She received the Ray E. Helfer Award for Innovation in Medical Education from the Academic Pediatric Association.

Her goal in life as well as with her hit TV show is "to show even if you have a disability, you can do a whole lot," she said. Her co-star on the show, husband Bill Klein, has an even rarer form of skeletal dysplasia. They met on the Internet, she said.

Arnold's visit was sponsored by the ECU Diversity Education Team and co-sponsored by Mendenhall Student Center.

The show's website is http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/tv/little-couple.

Contact: Crystal Baity | 252-744-3764