Alberto Esquenazi, MD, chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at MossRehab, always knew he wanted to go into medicine. Growing up in Mexico, he says, the school system helped him prepare for his future vocation—indeed, his passion—with a thorough grounding in the sciences.
“In Mexico, very early in high school you have to choose a path,” Dr. Esquenazi says. “You are encouraged to make a selection, and then your curriculum will reflect that choice. I knew I wanted to go into medicine, so I got into the track for the sciences. There was still a core curriculum, but I was heavily benefited by receiving math, physics and biology classes.”
The young Alberto Esquenazi took to his high school science studies with unquenchable curiosity. He particularly loved biology labs involving animals. “I thought it was intriguing to know how animals were inside,” he recalls.
His biology and anatomy teachers quickly picked up on his inquisitive nature. They were, he recalls, truly teachers who wanted to go beyond moving their students through the class and helping them get a good grade. They ignited passion in their students.
The teachers’ encouragement had a huge impact on students’ willingness to learn, Dr. Esquenazi recalls. “When you would go to them and say, ‘I would like more of the kinds of laboratories where we dissect animals,’ they would figure out a way to try to help you do that. I was fortunate to get such very good teachers.”
Later on, Dr. Esquenazi says, he was able to work with a veterinarian, “and it grew from there into an understanding that this (medicine) was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon. That was my thing.”
His desire to become a surgeon came to an abrupt and early end. While Dr. Esquenazi was in medical school, a chemical accident led to the amputation of his right arm below the elbow. He was fitted with a prosthetic arm. He started looking into other professions. At one point, he considered becoming a marine biologist—but that’s when another influential person stepped in and changed the course of his life.
“I was very fortunate,” Dr. Esquenazi recalls. “The rehab doctor who took care of me said to me, ‘That’s silly. You’d be a good doctor. Get back into medicine and finish. You can do rehab.’ That’s the best advice I ever got.”
Dr. Esquenazi became not just a “good” doctor, but one of the best. A past president of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, he has been named numerous times as a “Top Doc” by Philadelphia magazine, and—as chief medical officer for one of the top 10 ranked rehabilitation facilities in the U.S.—he is widely recognized as a leader in the field of rehabilitative medicine.
Dr. Esquenazi credits his grounding in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math—STEM, for short— for preparing him for both his career in rehabilitation, and in one other unexpected way.
His education in physics, he says, plays an important role in the field of rehabilitation—although it was difficult when he was studying it to see how that subject would have any application in the real world. He recalls thinking to himself: Why do I need to learn that?
“Oh, boy was I wrong,” Dr. Esquenazi says. “Now I realize the importance of how physics is a key component of what I do in my work, but also what we all do in life. There are lots of things we don’t realize are pure physics.”
And that is certainly true as he goes about his life, day to day. “Physics to me is important,” Dr. Esquenazi explains. “I want to be sure I am protecting my joints so that they hopefully will last my whole life. The one that I have that is connected to an artificial limb has to work in a different way. You don’t want to overexert. You don’t want to lift things that are heavier than you should. You should be smart about how you interact with objects. That is physics at its best.”