Claudia Martinez has undergone a very personal version of on-the-job training.
The 28-year-old Texas woman was studying to become a doctor when she started experiencing skull-splitting headaches. "On a scale of one to 10, it was getting close to a 10," she told InsideEdition.com. Doctors told her it was caused by stress over her upcoming entrance to medical school.
And then her symptoms got worse. She was only 19.
She went to a neurosurgeon, who diagnosed her with Chiari malformation, an uncommon condition in which brain tissue is forced into the spinal canal because of an small or misshapen skull. She would undergo six brain surgeries at the University of Texas at Houston, where she was also training.
She was cared for by her fellow med students and her professors. It was a little odd, she said, to have her colleagues get such an up-close look at her inside and outside. But she emerged more committed than ever to caring for the sick.
"I have a unique story," she said. "I've been a patient throughout my whole four years of medical school."
Every time she underwent surgery, Martinez was in worse shape than before. Her muscles deteriorated. She lost a great deal of weight. Each time surgeons opened up her skull, she was in a weaker state.
During her third year of medical school, she suffered a stroke. Back she went to surgery. "The neurosurgeon said to expect complications," she recalled.
"I woke up and couldn't function from the neck down."
She was moved to TIRR Memorial Hermann, where she underwent intense rehabilitation. She had to relearn a lifetime's worth of simple skills — walking, brushing her teeth, bathing, getting dressed and feeding herself. She spent a year doing those things.
Though she recovered most of her agility, some things weren't repairable. Her original dream of becoming a surgeon was thwarted by the stroke, which left her hands too unsteady to hold a scalpel.
But as she has since the beginning, Martinez rolled with it and regrouped. While in rehab, she realized the work she really wanted to do was right in front of her. She switched her training to physical medicine and rehabilitation.
She estimates she endured some 14 other surgeries, most involving complications from her brain condition. She was on a feeding tube for three years after suffering stomach paralysis. Doctors don't know if that is related to her Chiari malformation, she said. She consumes a lot of liquid nutrients, and is now able to eat what she likes, but in very small portions, she said.
She is most grateful she suffered no brain damage from the myriad procedures and pain she endured. "I've been very, very, very, very thankful for that," she said. "I'm doing very well."
Martinez is scheduled to graduate next May.
Asked why she never just quit, or dropped out of med school, Martinez replied, "I want to do this for my patients. ... At the end of the day, life may throw us curve balls, but life can be beautiful."