Lee Spahr, a senior at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, thought he’d study engineering when he graduates. Until he broke his ankle.
The busted ankle — he broke it “a few times skateboarding and hanging out with friends” — led to physical therapy, and a budding interest in the medical field.
Earlier this month, Spahr, 17, of Orrington was nominated to attend the Congress of Future Medical Leaders in Washington, D.C., chosen to represent Maine based on his academic achievement, leadership potential and “determination to serve humanity in the field of medicine.” The three-day annual event seeks to inspire and assist top students from across the country who aspire to careers in medicine.
“The whole things kicks off with the surgeon general of the United States coming out and telling us that we’re the future,” Spahr said.
As impressive as that opening speech was, Spahr was moved most by several other speakers: a boy genius who invented a cheap and accurate sensor to detect pancreatic cancer, a memory and speed-reading expert and a Vermont woman who survived a brutal attack to become the world’s first full face and neck transplant recipient.
Jack Andraka, a Maryland high school sophomore, shot to the international stage in 2012 after inventing a cancer sensor at age 15. Motivated by the death of a close family friend from pancreatic cancer, Andraka locked himself in his room, researching 4,000 types of proteins and nucleic acids, Spahr said. After he developed the sensor, he applied to 500 labs to help him test it. The first 480 said no, Spahr said.
“Because he had the will to keep going he was able to succeed and create this amazing test,” Spahr said.
Spahr also recounted the story of Jim Kwik, who created new learning methods for himself after a childhood injury left him struggling in school. Now a speaker, author and business advisor, Kwik teaches speed-reading, memory improvement, and learning techniques to audiences around the world.
“In a room full of 3,500 other kids, it felt like he was in a one-on-one conversation with me,” Spahr said. “I was really able to absorb everything he was telling us.”
Another example of triumph over adversity came in the form of Carmen Blandin Tarleton, a Vermont woman who underwent a face transplant in February 2013, six years after her then-husband disfigured her in a horrifying attack. In 2007, the man, believing she was seeing someone else, came after Tarleton, a mother of two, hitting her with a bat and pouring industrial-strength lye into her face.
In 2009, Herbert Rodgers pleaded guilty to the attack and was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison.
Tarleton, of Thetford, Vt., had face transplant surgery at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“She has the strength and the heart and the willpower to overcome all of those challenges,” Spahr said. “She mentioned that she forgives her ex-husband even though his actions were horrible.”
Tarleton now has a new boyfriend and is pursuing piano, said Spahr, who was so touched by her words he wrote them down.
“Forgive and forget, there’s always another way, and if you keep pursuing your dream you will always find it,” Spahr said, reading from his notes.
As for Spahr’s dreams, he’s been accepted to two schools, the University of New England in Biddeford and Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. He’s still weighing his decision, but said he’s leaning toward UNE.
He’s also keeping in mind a suggestion from a woman he met at the event, who runs a chiropractic and physical therapy center in Alaska. She challenged him to continue his medical education after his physical therapy training, and maybe even become a doctor one day.
“Honestly I feel changed in the way I’m going to study and the way I’m going to look at things … I’m absolutely keeping my mind open to that possibility,” Spahr said.