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Lawrence set to graduate from neurosurgery residency program

For as long as he can remember, Jesse Lawrence, M.D., knew that the best care a patient can receive goes beyond a diagnosis or treatment plan -- that approaching each patient as a person first and a case second matters most to those seeking care.

Dr. Lawrence, now a seventh-year neurosurgery resident at West Virginia University, said he gained this knowledge firsthand from a very young age when he was a patient himself. He received a spinal cord injury from a motor vehicle accident when he was eight months old, leaving him as a person with paraplegia.

Growing up in a wheelchair, he learned how doctors can positively affect experiences for patients. Critical procedures become less daunting. Challenges and setbacks become motivation to move forward.

Lawrence is set to graduate from the School of Medicine Department of Neurosurgery’s residency program this spring and hopes he instills the same calmness and confidence in his patients.

“Some of the scariest moments I had growing up were spent in a hospital, and times when I reflected on what I wanted to do with my life, I kept coming back to the gift my physicians gave me of restoring my humanity and hope,” Lawrence explained.

“Going into neurosurgery allows me to help patients two-fold. First, I can treat their physical ailment, and I can also help treat them emotionally, help them deal with being in a hospital,” he said.

Lawrence described himself as focused and determined, and when he wants something, he’s the type of person who will figure out how to achieve his goal despite any setbacks he encounters.

In addition to his personal drive, he attributes his continued success in the field, in part, to the support he’d received in the clinics, classroom and beyond.

“My family and my mom and dad, in particular, were who I leaned on in tough times. When someone has a spinal cord injury or some other health disparity, that experience is very individualized to that person. My parents always knew exactly what I was able or unable to do, more than anyone else, including myself,” he said.

“So anytime things weren’t going as well as I hoped, they understood my struggle. For example, my father has engineered many of the features of the wheelchair I use in the operating room. It allows me to be able to stand up straighter or to be able to lean over the operating table better; he’s always helped me overcome those challenges,” Lawrence said.

He initially found his passion for neurosurgery while earning his medical doctorate degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

“My first case that I saw as a medical student was witnessing a maximally invasive neurosurgery with two surgeons. It was a 12- to 14-hour surgery, and when I got out of the operating room at 9 o’clock at night, I called my brother and told him what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Lawrence decided he wanted to continue his residency training at an institution that would allow him to continue to access complex cases, like the one he first witnessed. WVU’s medical system and comprehensive facilities were strong considerations in his desire to match in Morgantown.

“To have all that in one place is truly a gem. After seven years of training, I can say that I’m prepared for all that neurosurgery has to offer. Not just one specific thing – I’ve seen it all,” he said.

Lawrence said his patients and community members are an asset to his training, too, referring to them as, “confidence building.”

“It wasn’t something I was expecting, but being around the people of West Virginia, I find them to be incredibly trusting and accepting. They don’t think any differently of me because I’m in a wheelchair. They were exactly the right people to work with as an introduction to becoming a physician,” he said.

Lawrence is now headed to Cornell University to complete a skull-based neurosurgery fellowship.

He acknowledged additional support in the mentorship of other doctors in the Department of Neurosurgery, particularly Jeremy Lewis, M.D., and the rest of the care team at the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

“When you come to WVU you really are part of the Mountaineer family for life,” he said.

For more information on the WVU School of Medicine, visit