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Good-Bye Skates, Hello Scrubs

Photo: Thad Russell

'PURE PERSISTENCE': The 1988 Olympic medalist, now a resident in orthopedic surgery, seems no worse for wear after an overnight shift.

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By Vauhini Vara

Debi Thomas always wanted to be a doctor. She just took a detour to win some medals in figure skating.

Thomas picked up a world championship and two national championships during her freshman year at Stanford, then stopped out for a year to train for the 1988 Winter Olympics. There she took a bronze, becoming the first African-American to win a medal in the Winter Games.

But even then, the engineering major was working toward what she says has been her goal all along: to become an orthopedic surgeon. “My medical interest has always been strictly in orthopedics,” Thomas says. “I guess that’s because I have a kind of mechanical mind and I also like interacting with people. Orthopedics is a good mix of the two.”

Now 35, Thomas says her life is “entirely different” from the skating years. For one thing, she stays off the ice. (“Unless you keep it up, it’s really hard to enjoy going out there. You skate around the rink fast one time and you’re all pooped out.”) As a resident at L.A.’s Martin Luther King Jr./Charles Drew University Medical Center, she typically puts in 12-hour shifts, but 36-hour spans are not unusual, Thomas says. In between, she devotes most of her time to her husband, sports attorney Chris Bequette, and 5-year-old son, Luc.

Reaching this point was a challenge, she admits. “My study skills were rotten,” Thomas says. But she managed to finish medical school at Northwestern University and a surgical residency at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital before starting her orthopedic surgery residency at the King/Drew facility in South Central L.A.

It’s a tough job in a tough neighborhood. The hospital is understaffed, Thomas says, and her days (and nights) there are exhausting. An orthopedic surgery residency means “five years of labor-intensive torture, almost,” she says with a laugh. “But you keep going because it’s what you want to do and you know that eventually you’re going to make it, if you can stay alive.

“I’m very satisfied with my life—I’m finally doing what I always wanted,” she adds. “You can accomplish anything with pure persistence and drive. I never gave up.”

—Vauhini Vara, ’04

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