Blind doctor gives patients a new look at life - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Blind doctor gives patients a new look at life

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Photo: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison Photo: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

MADISON (WKOW) -- A local doctor has overcome big obstacles in his life and is now helping area veterans get past their own struggles.

People who know Dr. Tim Cordes say he's brilliant, but it's not just his smarts that got him through med school: it was his unwavering determination despite a significant disadvantage.

Dr. Cordes, a psychiatrist at William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, has been blind since childhood but he never let that slow him down while reaching his dream of becoming a doctor.

After graduating valedictorian from the University of Notre Dame, Cordes was accepted into the UW School of Medicine and Public Health's elite MD/PhD program. In 1998, he was one of just eight people out of more than 200 of the nation's most qualified applicants to begin the program. He's believed to be the second blind person ever to be accepted to an American medical school.

Dr. Cordes did need some help along the way. Philip Farrell, an former dean and professor, says finding ways to adapt the program was new territory for the UW medical school. Some exams had to be modified, but Farrell says not much was adapted because Cordes was so bright. The McBurney Disability Resource Center on campus provided some technology support and advice to the med school on how to proceed.

Cordes says some unique technologies have helped his medical practice. He uses a device called an opticon that "reads" images by producing sounds. He also has a computer program that reads patient charts aloud and has an adapted iPhone that can read emails and other information to him. Those tools accompany his heightened other senses to get the job done.

"I learned to adapt elements of a physical exam to do things by touch," says Cordes. "I'd touch somebody's joints to feel how they move where somebody else might just watch."

The med school also hired a team of "visual describers" to help Cordes see in detail what a patient looked like.

"As we walked in the room, I'd just describe for Tim: 'the patient is laying on his back in the bed, he has oxygen on, IV in his arm, he looks like he's in a lot of pain,' and Tim would look at me and say 'yeah I know'," says Elizabeth Morrison, one of the visual describers. "He could tell by the patient's voice and just the feeling in the room that this patient was having some trouble."

It's Dr. Cordes' intuition and enhanced senses that he's put to good use in his current job as a psychiatrist. After his residency, Cordes completed a year-long fellowship on addiction at the VA Hospital. When that ended in fall, the hospital hired him on to join the psychiatry staff, specializing in addiction. He currently lives in Madison with his wife and two kids.

Chief of psychiatry Dr. Dean Krahn says Cordes is one of the most well-liked physicians on staff and has a unique way of picking up on things other doctors might miss, which helps the patients connect with him.

"Tim puts your mind at ease pretty quickly and I think that's actually what his patients find," says Krahn. "He is a guy who has figured out how to get through a lot of barriers, so when he senses that a patient has a barrier he does know that they need sort of a menu of ways to address it."

A few hundred of Wisconsin's veterans call Cordes their doctor. He treats patients at the hospital with his guide dog Bella at his side, but he also sees patients from out of town via video chat.

For patients like veteran Jerry Cunningham, Cordes has been a life-saver.

"He helps me see what I'm doing," says Cunningham. "I've talked with other people in mental health and I didn't feel the report I feel when I see him."

While Cordes is quite modest about his accomplishments, 'amazing' is how many have described the determination it took for him to become a doctor without sight.

"There was never any doubt in my mind after the first day working with Tim there was never doubt that he was going to make this happen," says Morrison.

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