When Taylor Kahnke’s parents gave him a microscope for his eighth birthday, a whole new world was revealed to him. He used his microscope to look at everything he could lay his hands on— rocks, hair, even a drop of his dad’s blood.
Kahnke has always had to look at things more carefully than most people. Diagnosed with ocular albinism as a baby, he has 20/80 vision and also nystagmus (involuntary to-and-fro eye movement) and astigmatism (a slight abnormality in the curvature of the eye’s surface).
Despite his visual limitations, Kahnke has always set his sights high. “I have always been scientifically oriented, and my parents encouraged me to develop that trait,” he says. “Even as a young boy, I was constantly asking questions about why things were the way they were. My dad remembers discussing atoms and molecules with me when I was 6 or 7 years old. I think my parents gave me a microscope for my birthday because they wanted me to start discovering my own answers. How my body works has always been fascinating to me as well.”
It’s not surprising, then, that becoming a doctor or a research scientist has been Kahnke’s aim since he was young.
And this fall, his boyhood ambition became a reality. Kahnke is now immersed in his first year of medical school at Albany Medical College in Albany, New York.
But before deciding to pursue that dream, Kahnke wanted to discuss how his vision might affect his success in medicine with his longtime ophthalmologist, C. Gail Summers, M.D., a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Minnesota.
Summers, who first examined Kahnke when he was 7 months old, put him in contact with a visually impaired doctor in Minnesota whom he shadowed in the clinic for a day, observing how she practices medicine while overcoming visual challenges.
“There weren’t a lot of surprises for me when I shadowed her,” explains Kahnke. “I’ve spent my entire life accommodating my vision, whether it’s enlarging an image on a computer screen or holding my head close to the subject at hand. I’ve learned not to be afraid to do whatever it takes to help me function best. And that’s what I did in the clinic that day. I had to hold my head a little closer to the patient during a retinal exam, for instance.”
Kahnke says his vision is comparable to that of many older adults. He wears a special type of contact lens made to fit the eyes of people with astigmatism, which gives him better vision than he would have with glasses alone. For reading and other close work, he wears reading glasses in addition to his contact lenses.
With his diagnosis, Kahnke’s visual acuity is expected to remain stable throughout his life, until he faces the eye conditions and diseases that are typical in old age.
Kahnke hasn’t yet settled on which area of medicine he’d like to pursue, but he has ruled out a surgical specialty, given his visual limitations. He thinks it’s possible that he will end up in a specialty that allows him to do minor procedures and hands-on work, perhaps in urology, dermatology, or neurology.
“Neurology is the most interesting to me at this time,” he says. “I’m very interested in studying human consciousness. What makes every one of us so different is a question that’s both biological and somewhat philosophical.”
It’s clear that Kahnke’s innate curiosity, intelligence, and hard work have contributed to his character today. He also credits his parents for giving him opportunities to be successful.
“They’ve always done absolutely everything they could for me, whether it was giving me encouragement or opportunities like taking high school science and math classes when I was in the eighth grade, or purchasing a close-circuit television or these contact lenses that were recently made available. I’m extremely grateful for the love and support I’ve received from them.”
Besides understanding what patients go through when faced with physical challenges on a personal level, Kahnke thinks, as a doctor, he will be able to bring patients hope.
“In many cases, diseases can be treated but can’t be cured,” he says. “I’m one example of that. And in spite of that, with the right approach, the best technology, and good coping skills, people like me can live very enjoyable, functional, successful, completely normal lives.”