'Everyone Is Handicapped in Some Way,' Says David Hartman, Phi Bete, Husband, Doctor—and Blind

When David Hartman, a 26-year-old Philadelphian, was handed his medical degree at Temple University in May, an extraordinary thing happened. First his classmates began to applaud. Then their families, the faculty and university officials joined in. Within a few minutes all 10,000 people in Convention Hall stood and cheered, many of them weeping.

Dr. Hartman’s face shone with pride, but he remained in control. He is an unsentimental young man who cannot indulge himself in wild swings of emotion. Dave Hartman is blind, the first blind American ever to complete pre-med and medical studies.

He was born in suburban Haverford, Pa. with malformed lenses which impaired his vision. At 8 he developed glaucoma and detached retinas. After three operations, young Hartman learned he would never see again.

David’s father, a banker, and his mother and sister worked to make him self-sufficient and useful. His sister taught him to dry dishes carefully. So his son could learn archery, Fred Hartman attached a bell to the target, and David aimed at the tinkle. His father’s credo was: “You’ll never know if you can do it unless you try.” At Haverford high school, Dave wrestled and ran with the cross-country team (guided by a rope held by another runner).

The obstacles to becoming a doctor looked insurmountable to everyone but David. His mother suggested less demanding careers, and he politely demurred. He was looking for the toughest challenge he could find.

David plunged into premed at Gettysburg College and came out with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a fiancée. He and Cheri Walker had double-dated, but with other people. They discovered they got along better with each other than with their dates. The friendship blossomed, and in 1973 they were married. Is it hard being a blind man’s wife? No, says Cheri Hartman. “We divide everything equally. I do the shopping, David cleans house.” Cheri is now a doctoral student in educational psychology at Temple.

Nine medical schools turned David down before Temple courageously decided to give him a chance. From the first semester on, he stayed in the top fifth of his class. Hartman’s success required a massive collaboration of effort, not only from classmates and professors but from volunteers who taped medical textbooks (700 hours of them) and exams. In histology, instead of identifying tissue slides through a microscope, he identified them from an oral description. Hartman performed well in anatomical dissections because “a lot of surgery is done by touch.” His professors taught him to “feel” his way through a diagnosis, guiding his hands over organs, viscera and diseased tissue.

Hartman has still harder work ahead. This fall he begins a year’s internship at Temple University Hospital, followed by three years of residency at the University of Pennsylvania hospital and two more at Temple. He will specialize in psychiatry and rehabilitative medicine.

He thinks his blindness may turn out to be an asset in that specialty. “Many people feel nervous when a psychiatrist looks at them,” Dr. Hartman says, “as if somehow he has inside information which exposes them. My patients might feel more comfortable.”

Dr. Hartman appears astonishingly well-adjusted. “Everyone is handicapped in some way,” he says. “My blindness put my life into focus.”

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