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2015 Scholarship Winner

Congratulations to Caitlin Calder, winner of the first annual Doctor On Demand scholarship to support the next generation of doctors, nurses and health service professionals. Today’s students will start their career in a rapidly changing landscape and we want to help them discover the innovative ways they will shape the future.

This year’s Doctor On Demand scholarship was available to any student enrolled in a pre-med or health-related field-of-study at a four year, accredited college or university for the fall of 2015.

Caitlin Calder was chosen from many thousands of entries. Read her essay to see why she stood out:

  • Name: Caitlin Calder
  • Age: 33
  • School: University of Houston
  • Year: senior
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Caitlin Calder with her daugher Della

In 2007 my daughter, Della, was born with a genetic mutation of the ASXL3 gene, also called Bainbridge-Ropers Syndrome (BRS). BRS has caused Della to have many physical and intellectual disabilities. Because she was the fourth child in the world to be diagnosed with this disease, we’ve had the opportunity to work with many doctors and specialists at the Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Simons Foundation in furthering research to better help identify others suffering from BRS. As I learned more about genetics and the role it plays in how a medical condition manifests, I started to think that I wanted to enter the medical field.

Children with BRS are unable to speak and Della is no exception. She has been in speech therapy for many years learning how to communicate with a touch screen speech output device. I will never forget the first time that she used her device to “say” she wanted “goldfish crackers!” That pivotal moment with my daughter is what inspired my decision to return to school in my thirties to become a speech therapist.

I currently attend the University of Houston studying communication disorders; and in addition to my studies, I volunteer as a research assistant. I am working to improve speech devices that are controlled infrared “eye-gaze” technology. This technology enables nonverbal individuals who are unable to use their hands to communicate using a speech output device through eye movement. Users can move a cursor with their eyes to spell words or to build sentences through preprogrammed vocabulary. An Internet connection allows users to use their device to make phone calls, send emails, and even change the channel on their TV. More importantly, this technology opens up the world to people who would otherwise be completely unable to communicate. Suddenly these individuals can express their needs and wants, they can tell caregivers that they are in pain, they can form more meaningful relationships, and the have the ability to further their education. Patients who have utilized this technology have many diverse diagnoses that include: traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, brainstem injuries, strokes, muscular dystrophy, and multiple sclerosis. With eye gaze technology these debilitating conditions no longer mean the end of communication. A father with ALS can have a relationship with his child. A high school student with cerebral palsy can give a class presentation or joke with friends. A young man with a traumatic brain injury can continue his college education. A woman who has had a stroke can use her device to access a medical professional through Doctor On Demand. When I realized the incredible impact that this technology can have on people’s lives, I knew this was the direction I wanted to take.

I plan on working in hospitals and rehabilitation centers with children and adults that are unable to speak and to assist them in learning how to communicate using touch screen or eye-gaze speech output devices. When I graduate as a speech pathologist, I will be in a very unique position to understand my patients’ needs as both a clinician and as a parent of a child with a disability. I want to help families experience the joy of communicating with a loved one; but more importantly, I want to help my clients to interact with their world. I know that like my daughter, many of them will have something to say, they just need the right opportunity.

Caitlin’s response to winning:

“Oh my gosh! I can’t thank you enough for this scholarship! This is going to help my education more than I am able to put into words at this moment. I don’t remember the last time I cried this much out of happiness!”

Caitlin’s support system:

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Caitlin with her husband Chad, daughter Della and son Archer

“Before going back to school, I stayed home to take care of Della because she required so much care. She had on average five therapy and doctor appointments a week for the first few years of her life. I also have a son named Archer who is 11. He loves computers, playing the drums and making his sister laugh. My husband Chad has always encouraged me every step of the way. He even transferred his job to work from home so that he could get the kids off to school when I leave early in the morning for class. He never complains about the extra work and his tutoring got me an ‘A’ in college algebra. My grandma is probably my biggest fan. When ever I feel discouraged, I can call her and she makes me feel like I am capable of anything I set my mind to.”