An Inspiration by Example

By , Contributing Writer
May 2012

Memorial Day, which is May 28 this year, is the day we honor fallen heroes from military service and war, remembering their efforts on our behalf.

In Houston we have a well-regarded medical facility to care for wounded heroes, at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, which most of us call “The VA.”

Dr. Sally Ann Holmes provides care for injured veterans.

Among the doctors here is Dr. Sally Ann Holmes, 48. In the medical world, some consider her a hero as well – both for her success in rehabilitating patients with spinal-cord injuries and for her personal example of living successfully with a physical disability.

Dr. Holmes has used a wheelchair since she was a teen due to a muscular disorder called central core myopathy, a rare genetic disorder similar to muscular dystrophy but not as life threatening.

Routine physical tasks aren’t routine for her, and she drives a specially equipped van that fits her motorized wheelchair. Yet she has chosen a demanding physical life as a physician.

As a young doctor, she says, she was drawn to working with veterans because she found they didn’t tend to focus on her disability. She says she has developed a sixth sense, or intuition, in working with patients because of her personal experiences on the receiving end of medicine.

“Veterans were so accepting,” she says. “I’ve been a patient myself. I listen to the patient. I am able to go beyond the strictly clinical and see the bigger picture. No one can completely understand.”

Among her current patients are young soldiers injured in explosions and vehicle accidents, as well as older veterans with maladies.

Dr. Holmes began at the VA in 1994 after a Baylor residency in rehabilitative medicine and primary care. She went to work at their spinal cord therapy unit and in 2001 was promoted to the executive in charge of the spinal cord unit, overseeing care for all patients.

Born in Memphis, Holmes said she was a “floppy baby,” and her parents knew immediately something was wrong. Many years of care and testing followed until she was given a diagnosis. As she grew, though, she never felt discouraged by her disability, she says, because her parents always encouraged her independence. She even learned to drive a specially equipped van at age 16.

She says she never thought she could not be whatever she wanted to be, and she participated in sports and had an active social life despite hospitalizations, treatment and medical challenges through her childhood as the muscular disease progressed. She found inspiration in the doctors treating her and thought about starting her own career in medicine.

When Holmes was accepted into medical school at the University of Tennessee in 1986, there was no such thing as “accommodations” because it was before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated them.

She used her ingenuity in accommodating her needs on clinical rotations. For example, in surgery, she used a chair with wheels that sat high to the ground so she could reach the operating table. Like other residents, she survived 20-hour work days. As these long days from surgery began to take a physical toll on her, she was able to design a special rotation for the next stage of her education at the Memphis VA hospital.

Originally she planned to specialize in psychiatry, but during her rotations, she discovered she was happier in the physical care of patients.

Once she decided on a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation, she made the move to Houston in 1991 to attend Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Holmes says she loves her transplanted hometown. Her brother and mother now live here, and together they are all Texans season-ticket holders. She married Glenn Burdeaux, a mechanical engineer, in 2010, and they love going to Astros games.

In November, on Veterans Day, Holmes received the Operation American Heroes Foundation Founder’s Award for her dedication to caring for veterans. The national foundation provides grants and funding to organizations that assist with veteran care.

John Carloss, chairman and founder of that organization, is a Vietnam veteran. He is effusive in his praise for Dr. Holmes.

“It is so unbelievable how she has dedicated her life to her work with veterans, especially given her own difficult physical situation,” John said. “I find her an enormous inspiration.”