Becoming a doctor is hard enough. But Dr. Hodaya Oliel faced additional challenges to become Israel’s first doctor with cerebral palsy. Now that she finally has her degree, she’s opening up about what it was like to grow up with CP and how it informs her practice as a medical professional.
If you ask Oliel whether she feels like she’s making history, she will say NO.
“I don’t see myself that way. I’m just a regular doctor, as I’ve dreamt of becoming since I was a small child,” Oliel says. “It’s just that my difficulty is very visible, whereas the challenges lots of other people have to overcome might not be so obvious.”
She’s currently a resident in the Pediatrics department at the Shamir Medical Center but it was her condition that inspired her to go into healthcare.
After high school, she completed her national service at Asif, the school at the hospital where she spent most of her time as a kid.
“I worked mainly with CP patients,” Oliel explains. “When I had been hospitalized there as a kid, I was encouraged to join in on the activities with the kids who learned in that school. That’s why it was so meaningful for me to do my national service there.”
She took her psychometric exam and got into the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, but the idea of going to college felt intimidating to Oliel.
“It was a very challenging transition,” she recalls. “Up until then, I’d lived at home with my parents, and all of a sudden I was far away, without any help. Granted, I was a very independent person, but there were so many things I didn’t know how to do yet, or that took me a really long time to do, and each day I would encounter a new difficulty, and who knows if there was going to be somebody nearby who could help me. In short, that first year was horrible, but I knew that I had to push on, and that I would figure out a way to get by.”
She learned how to live on her own while pursuing a degree in medicine, but her chosen path felt like anything but a guarantee.
“I wanted more than anything else in the world to become a pediatrician. That was the only thing I could think about. I didn’t always have someone to guide or support me, but I knew that if I was just a little more stubborn, and stuck it out through the tough times, I would succeed,” she says.
When she finished her college studies and began her residency, she posted a message on Facebook that quickly went viral.
“I’m sending hugs to everyone who is in my position and thinks they don’t stand a chance. You do, but that doesn’t mean things will be easy. It just means that you need to keep breathing, give yourself daily boosts of confidence and believe that tomorrow might be a better day,” she wrote in 2019.
“Throughout my years in college, I’d been uploading posts, but this particular post caught the eye of [journalist] Sivan Rahav-Meir, who invited me to come for an interview with her. This was my first step toward becoming well-known,” Oliel says. “I never imagined so many people would be interested in my story.”
Later that year, she was chosen to light the torch at the country’s 71st Independence Day ceremony, which thrusted her into the spotlight.
Growing Up with CP
Oliel was born prematurely at just 27 weeks. She spent three months in the NICU and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was six months old. She went on to lose some motor function in her legs but didn’t suffer any cognitive impairment.
But those early days in the hospital made an impression on young Oliel.
“Every time I had to undergo surgery when I was a child or teen, I would say to myself, ‘I have to keep coming back to the hospital because God wants me to know what it’s like to be a child who is hospitalized.’ It was never easy, but I remember being so curious about everything I saw, even the operating room. These experiences are what spurred me to succeed in high school, and while I was studying for my psychometric exam. I didn’t make any backup plans for if I didn’t succeed. That was not an option.”
She often felt ostracized around the other kids when she was in elementary school.
“To make things even worse, I had to have an aide follow me around all day at school, so you can imagine how all the other kids reacted to that. They looked at me like I was an alien. I was extraordinarily lucky, however, that my siblings were so supportive and would help me boost my self-esteem. I just couldn’t wait for elementary school to end so I could move to a new school and make a fresh start. I made a pledge to myself that I would do everything in my power to have a great social life at my new school.”
She soon decided to forgo the aide and have her dad walk her to school.
“When I began walking with a crutch, I was finally able to walk on my own, which was amazing,” she added.
Oliel will never forget what it’s like to grow up with CP.
With medical school behind her, she says she plans on specializing in pediatric neurology, so she can help children and families struggling with the same condition.
She gets lots of messages from parents and individuals living with CP that she’s inspired since going public with her condition.
“Ever since I participated in the Independence Day ceremony, the number has risen dramatically. I don’t always have time to respond, since my hours in the hospital working as a resident are so long, but I do try to write back to everyone. But seeing how many people I can help makes me feel like it was worth it all the times I experienced hardship.”