Born with a rare genetic disorder that limits her height to three-and-a- half feet, first-year pediatrics resident Nadia Merchant lets nothing get in the way of her medical career or her love of travel.
Third Culture Kid
Nadia Merchant, M.D., experienced more of the world before she reached high school than many Americans will see in their entire lives. Born in Houston to parents of Pakistani and Indian descent, she moved overseas with her family when her father took an engineering job in Qatar. Merchant spent her third and fourth grade in Qatar before her family returned to Texas. Four years later, they moved again—this time to Saudi Arabia.
“I’m a third culture kid,” said Merchant. “My parents are from one place, I grew up in the U.S.; and I lived overseas.”
Merchant loved living in the Middle East, saying that the region’s rapid growth gives it a dynamic and lively atmosphere. When the time came to apply to universities, she chose Cornell University’s new Qatar campus with its accelerated program. It took Merchant just six years to complete her undergraduate studies and medical school.
She credits her experience in the Middle East with expanding her cultural horizons. Having done her medical rotations in Qatar, she gained exposure to a different health care system and a different set of patients than she would have seen if she had studied at an American medical school. That’s given her an edge over some of her peers.
“I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t traveled internationally so much and lived in other countries,” she said. “I have a very global perspective, and I can relate to a variety of people.”
Merchant was born with acromesomelic dysplasia, a rare recessive genetic condition that limits her height, but doesn’t come with the health problems common in other forms of dwarfism.
“I’m just a few feet shorter than most people,” she said. “That’s all it is. I can do everything anyone else can do.”
At three-foot-six, Merchant deals with daily inconveniences like doorknobs and vending machine buttons that are out of reach. Yet she hardly lets these things bother her. She makes sure that the hospitals where she works stock gloves and gowns in her size. She can often be seen carrying a trusty teal and black stepstool that helps her reach everything from the top shelf of a supply cabinet to a patient’s bedside. And she’s not afraid to ask for assistance on the rare occasion that she needs it.
“As soon as I get familiar with my surroundings, I can accommodate,” she said.
Sometimes the challenges are a bit bigger, but Merchant believes that hard work and persistence always pay off. For example, she earned her driver’s license in the United States and had her modified car shipped to Saudi Arabia for her to drive around the military base. She ran into a bit of difficulty, however, when she moved to Qatar for college. The Qatari Traffic Department had little experience with drivers with disabilities; it was common there for people to simply hire personal drivers. Merchant had to visit several physicians and demonstrate her ability to drive in her modified car, educating traffic officials until she was granted a license.
“Being the first is a bit challenging,” she said, with her typical positive outlook, “but it’s not impossible.”
Medicine in her genes
Growing up with a genetic disorder, Merchant naturally understood the basics of genetics well before she learned about it in school. She developed an interest in medicine at an early age and always knew that she wanted to pursue a medical career.
As a medical student, Merchant found that she preferred inpatient settings more than outpatient. She also found that she loved the pediatric field and discovered that her height gave her a unique advantage with young patients.
“A lot of times, kids think that I’m a kid, too,” she said. “So they’re more comfortable around me. I guess I’m less intimidating to them.”
It isn’t just working with children that attracts Merchant to pediatrics.
“Parents are overwhelmed when their child is sick,” she said. “It’s rewarding to walk them through the treatment plan and to spend time comforting them.”
Merchant hopes to become a pediatrician with a strong background in genetics, finding a career that allows her to practice both fields.
Earning “positive exposure”
During her studies, Merchant became involved with Positive Exposure, a nonprofit organization founded by fashion photographer Rick Guidotti.
Guidotti found images of people with genetic conditions—particularly those in medical textbooks—to be dehumanizing, focused mainly on deformity and disfiguration. He dedicated his work to photographing people with genetic disorders in a way that captures their individual beauty and human spirit.
Besides posing for one of Guidotti’s portraits, Merchant was selected to be one of three women profiled in On Beauty, a documentary about Guidotti’s work and the mission of Positive Exposure. In the film, Merchant shares her inspiring optimism and her disregard for the challenges of her height.
“People might think, oh, my challenge is short stature,” she says in the film’s trailer, “but honestly, maybe that’s your challenge, but not mine.”
After appearing in the documentary, Merchant was asked to participate in the organization’s Pearls Project. She and other young people with genetic conditions blogged and answered questions from high school students about their experiences. The students then used the blogs in a variety of class projects, from creative writing and dance to biology and philosophy. The entire project was aimed at teaching tolerance, empathy, and respect for diversity.
“I would tell them to believe in themselves,” said Merchant. “Everyone has challenges, but with hard work you can overcome that.”
Wright State and beyond
Merchant is following her time in Qatar with a residency with the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. She said she was first drawn to the program because of its unique combination of military and civilian perspectives. Merchant rotates her time at Dayton Children’s Medical Center and the medical center at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She also likes the size of the Boonshoft residency program.
“It’s big enough that you get to work with a wide variety of people, but small enough that you know everyone on a personal level,” she said.
An Ohio school may seem like an odd choice for a world traveler like Merchant, but she enjoys the change of pace. “I love the Midwest,” she said. “Everyone is so friendly and relaxed here.”
Of course, Merchant still loves to travel whenever she can. She speaks especially highly of a recent trip to Turkey, describing both the water and the weather as beautiful.
And when Merchant begins to apply to genetics fellowships after her residency, location won’t really be a factor she considers.
“I’m open to the world,” she said.