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Brookwood grad pursuing doctorate after being paralyzed

Special Photo Hammad Aslam, far left, with Bree Berry, a fellow classmate, and Dr. Don Scott (MD), a professor.

Special Photo Hammad Aslam, far left, with Bree Berry, a fellow classmate, and Dr. Don Scott (MD), a professor.

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Special PhotoHammad Aslam works with a patient.

SNELLVILLE -- Why not med school?

Hammad Aslam was still planning on it, but his doctors seemed less enthused, less optimistic. The 2005 Brookwood High School grad and recent University of Georgia alum wasn't tip-top at the moment, sure. But why would he not still go to med school?

"I made the decision pretty early on," Aslam said this week at a Snellville bookstore.

The reason for his doctors' veiled skepticism was this: On May 23, 2009, Aslam and his family were driving back from Augusta after a trip checking out, ironically, housing for him at the Medical College of Georgia.

He was sleeping through the ride back to Snellville when his life came to a screeching halt.

The car carrying his family hydroplaned, skidded off the road and into a tree. The tree cracked and fell directly on top of him. Several weeks later he "woke up" in the hospital, to words like "traumatic brain injury" and "paralyzed."

"I dealt with depression for a while," Aslam said. "I dealt with just trying to get used to everything."

Aslam is now paralyzed from the waist down. He gets around in a wheelchair and drives his car using hand controls.

And he goes to med school.

After pushing his plans back for a year -- and a lot of rehab, speech therapy and life adjustments -- Aslam is a second-year doctoral candidate at Medical College of Georgia's Athens campus. He has his own apartment, enjoys the company of friends and, as all medical students, spends way too much time studying.

"It just makes everything worth it," he said.

The road was not easy. The traumatic brain injury left doctors the most concerned about his future aspirations. When his friends were initially told about it, they left concluding it was possible he would be a vegetable.

Early on, he struggled with neuro-psychological tests.

"I thought I was getting everything 100 percent correct," Aslam said, "but apparently early on I was doing pretty horrible. The whole entire time, I thought I was still 100 percent fine, I don't have a brain injury at all."

With time, everything came back, if not a little differently.

"I have different strengths now," he said. "On my last test, I scored really well on pattern recognition. So when I study I try to use a lot of colors, try to fit different pieces of information together. I try vocalizing everything, talking out loud."

"If I try to just memorize things, it's not that easy anymore."

Then, of course, there's the paralysis.

Immediately after his months-long stay at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Aslam moved back in with his parents. They all had to re-learn to live their lives, help him with everyday tasks until he got the hang of things. His room had to be moved to the main floor, parents and siblings had to learn his medications and how to take apart his wheelchair.

"It's been extremely hard," Aslam said. "But I've had an extremely good support system, my family, my friends. They've all really helped me."

At school, Aslam said classmates and instructors alike are "very very accommodating." In anatomy labs, most rooms are constructed with cameras and large screens that help him see what's going on. Some tables raise and lower.

A private donor actually gave him a "stand-up" wheelchair that essentially enables him to extend his legs and raise his upper body to the height of the average standing person while visiting patients.

Patients during monthly visits to Athens Regional Medical Center aren't caught off guard a bit, Aslam said.

"They're actually a lot more comfortable with me, I feel like," he said. "I think they feel like I've been there, I know pain."

Aslam still isn't sure what particular field of medicine he's looking to go into, throwing out pediatrics, family practice and physical medicine and therapy as potentials.

Whatever it is, he'll be able to say, "Yes, I went to med school."

"The biggest thing I've learned is to value time," Aslam said. "I learned to value life."