“On March 8, 2016, I woke up to find myself connected to a medical ventilator and feeding tube. The next thing I noticed was my mom by my bedside. Her facial expression signaled to me that everything would be alright, but also that something was very wrong … Over the years, my commitment to becoming a physician has weathered many different storms, but as I lay motionless in my hospital bed paralyzed from the neck down, I began doubting that commitment for the first time.”
So goes the compelling personal statement that helped Daniel Houston, a 2009 UNLV graduate, gain admission to the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV Class of 2025.
“I had been in a terrible car accident [in Seattle] and was admitted to the ICU with a broken neck and a ruptured carotid artery. My C3 and C4 vertebrae were almost overlapping one another. After hours of anterior and posterior surgery on my neck, the neurosurgeons were able to stop the bleeding. As I lay there listening to the surgeons explain why I would no longer be able to manage basic bodily functions on my own, I began signaling to remove my breathing tube as best I could. To me, accepting it meant accepting my new life as a quadriplegic and saying goodbyes to all of my goals and dreams.”
Today, Houston – he founded Medical Students with Disability and Chronic Illness (MSDCI) at UNLV, a student-led group committed to enhancing accessibility of resources and providing a support system to students with disabilities and chronic illnesses – gets around the medical school and hospitals with the help of a scooter and arm crutches. He also walks short distances, often with a cane.
“I had no movement for two to three weeks before being able to wiggle my toes,” says Houston, who is well beyond thankful that his spinal cord injury wasn’t as severe as first thought. “At a month, I was able to move parts of my extremities. I spent the next month as an inpatient in a Seattle hospital participating in rehab six days a week … I had many dark days… I went from feeling nothing to feeling like parts of me were on fire … I had tears in my eyes most nights as I wondered if I’d ever be able to play again with my two kids, who were then three and five … I started the second month using a motorized wheelchair and barely being able to stand for a few seconds while holding on to my physical therapist … I wouldn’t be where I am today without her … She would be drenched in sweat after our rehab sessions … I went from simulating ambulation in a sling attached to the ceiling to taking my own steps with arm crutches before leaving the hospital.”
It was 33 years ago this week that the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. While Houston pays homage to this civil rights legislation and knows it has helped him and others gain opportunities, he says there is still a real need for advocacy in the area of disability rights. Both in and out of a school setting, he says when people see someone using a scooter and arm crutches, for instance, there are many, many questions about what you’re able to do. “People often forget how important the mental part is in work,” he says. “When you’re disabled, you have to be honest about what you can’t do, while also stressing what you can do.”
Houston says it is important to remember that not every physician has to be able to stand and carry out a long surgery. “I’d love to go into physical medicine and rehabilitation and map out a strategy to help someone. I really want to be a part of people’s journey and use my experience as both a patient and a provider of healthcare to help improve patients’ lives.”
A native of Las Vegas and the first in his family to graduate from college – he has two older brothers and a younger sister – Houston moved around the country frequently as a child during his father’s Air Force service and later when he opened his own janitorial firm in California. That all changed when his father took a position for nearly two decades in the Clark County Assessor’s Office. His mother worked for 45 years in the hospitality and financial industries. Houston graduated from College of Southern Nevada High School with 35 college credits after two years as an honor student at Cheyenne High School.
Growing up, Houston saw physicians as “superheroes,” people who dramatically helped others. He says his desire to become a physician matured while he worked as a volunteer passing out meals in the soup kitchen of his local church. “I noticed that many of the health issues people had in their lives were only exacerbated by the lack of support and access to health care … I quickly understood that a career as a physician would give me the chance to alleviate someone's pain or remove an ailment before it began negatively affecting other areas in their life.” With that in mind, Houston began attending UNLV in 2002, earning bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology over a seven-year period.
He helped pay his way through college by working full time as a sanitation truck driver. Part of his paycheck also helped provide for his goddaughter who had lost her father due to gang violence. Following graduation, Houston moved to the northwest to be with his fiancée and to gain more lab and research experience. There, the couple had two children together.
Working two jobs in Seattle to support his family, Houston was on the way home around 3 a.m. after handling the graveyard shift at a research lab when the accident occurred that would change his life forever.
He has no memory of what occurred in the one-car accident that took place at a freeway exit ramp. He has seen photos of his SUV that hit a barrier and wonders how he survived. “It might have been my exhaustion that caused it. I’m so glad no other cars were involved.”
After months of rehab in and out of the hospital, Houston returned to UNLV in 2017 to do postbaccalaureate study in biochemistry to better prepare him for medical school admission.
Where did Houston get the strength to overcome his disability and go to medical school?
“First, my faith in God. I firmly believe He is my strength. Also, He has blessed me with parents that not only taught me determination, but also showed me how to apply it in life when things get rough – and two beautiful children that motivate me to be the best version of myself and show them there’s nothing that they can't overcome.”