The renowned cardiologist’s inspirational talk shares what had been a private part of his journey: contending with a profound reading disability since childhood.
The TEDxCharleston Talk begins when a lean gentleman in a suit, with stylish eyeglasses and dark hair, steps out to the podium. He starts to tell a story about himself, first as a 10-year-old paddling a canoe. His unassuming demeanor and engaging storytelling draw the audience in.
What unfolds is an inspirational tale that has racked up tens of thousands of views since it was posted on YouTube in May 2022. In it, renowned cardiologist John Rhodes ’84 describes all the places that canoe has taken him. He sometimes struggles as he paddles through the night, and the effort at times becomes almost too much to bear. Yet he never stops paddling, recalculating, regrouping, continuing with great effort and determination toward his goal of becoming a physician.
The story, riveting and at times emotional, marks a very public sharing of what had been a very private part of Rhodes’ journey to success in his chosen field: since childhood, he has grappled with a profound reading disability.
While dyslexia made medical school more challenging, Rhodes’ work ethic and discipline ultimately made him an excellent surgeon. “[The medical school] probably still has the poster boards and visual aids I spent hours creating and studying there,” he said.
Even as he has become a leader in his field, Rhodes still dedicates a full day each week to reading about congenital heart research, often using books on tape so he can cover the material more quickly and thoroughly.
“I always wanted to be a doctor”
Today, Rhodes is an accomplished and well-regarded physician. His 30-year career as an interventional cardiac specialist for both children and adults with congenital heart disease has included fellowships and studies in research hospitals from New York City to Miami, Florida. He has helped develop lifesaving cardiac catheterization techniques and devices.
His CV charts his professional journey. Rhodes received an undergraduate degree from NC State and a medical degree from East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine. His training included a residency in pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina and a fellowship in cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center; and additional preparation in pediatric and adult congenital interventional cardiac catheterization at The Cleveland Clinic.
He has enjoyed successful tenures at both the Duke University Medical Center as chief of the Children’s Heart Center, director of the Pediatric & Adult Congenital Interventional Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory and co-director of the Adult Congenital Heart Program; and at the Nicklaus Children’s Health System in Miami as the director of cardiology, director of adult congenital and director of the Interventional Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory. He is currently the operations director at the Congenital Heart Center at MUSC, located in Charleston.
“I always wanted to be a doctor because I looked up to my father and grandfather,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes monitors testing at the Congenital Heart Center of MUSC, where he is the operations director.
A neurodiverse learner
Rhodes’ early years were happy and well-rounded. He grew up enjoying sports, playing basketball and golf, and had a good group of friends. In elementary school, he recalled, he mostly learned the material taught in his classes “by looking at the pictures.” It took a few years for his as-yet-undiagnosed reading deficits to make an impact on his academic growth. When that happened, his teachers recommended he repeat fourth grade. As it turned out, he was reading at just a first-grade level.
That was when he came to Ravenscroft. His mother, who was an advocate for his needs at a time when much about neurodiverse learners was still unknown, believed the smaller classes and individualized instruction would benefit him. The move got him up to fifth grade and came with what he called a “label” that helped explain his reading challenges: special education.
At Ravenscroft, Rhodes (shown here in his senior portrait) excelled at sports while putting in many hours of extra work to keep up with his academics.
Rhodes (standing at left) fondly remembers his teachers and coaches, including Jimmy Cox, shown here with the varsity golf team in the 1984 Corvus yearbook.
“I never told my friends [about my reading difficulties]. I think some had an inkling,” he said, adding that sometimes “they seemed smarter” to him and were competitive about being in Advanced Placement courses. Rhodes recalled spending “hours and hours” studying to keep up in regular-placement classes.
He said he remembers with fondness his time at Ravenscroft and a number of influential teachers and coaches: English teachers Sylvia White (who emailed him after seeing his TEDx Talk) and Elaine Cottrell and his golf coach, Jimmy Cox. He recalled taking a public speaking class as a junior at Ravenscroft. Despite forgetting his notes, he made an A+ presentation to his class because he had worked so hard to memorize his speech. The teacher dubbed him “a natural.”
College brought Rhodes closer to his goal of medical school, but in many ways — to use the metaphor from his TEDxCharleston Talk — the water surrounding his canoe was deeper and more choppy. He was rejected by several medical schools and experienced demoralizing judgments from academic officials. Once, in medical school, he was accused of cheating on a test because he had the top score on a difficult exam. Called to prove himself, he aced a verbal retest, gaining an ally in that professor, who later offered him a teaching assistantship.
“[The medical school] probably still has the poster boards and visual aids I spent hours creating and studying there,” Rhodes said with a smile.
“I never, ever stop”
In the years since, Rhodes’ work ethic and discipline have continued to propel him forward despite the significant effort required to overcome his reading challenges, which were eventually diagnosed as dyslexia. He devotes a full day every week to reading and studying.
“My wife would tell you, I read everything there is [about congenital heart research],” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I listen to books on tape so that I can read faster. I never, ever stop.”
Understanding that his patients and their families may benefit from having information presented to them in multiple ways, Rhodes provides sketches that help explain the concerns his medical intervention will address.
It wasn’t until a dinner gathering at his home in late summer 2019 that he spoke openly with friends about his struggles. One thing led to another, and Rhodes found himself assigned to a TEDxCharleston coach, preparing to share his story. In May of 2022, after two years of pandemic-related cancelations, he finally delivered his talk — and received a standing ovation from the audience.
In addition to the formal, recorded program, the venue hosted a rehearsal that was attended by 500 local high-school students. Rhodes said that he was most determined to deliver the talk to them: “Speaking to those kids is what I was doing this for. I wanted them to hear [my message] that, ‘Inside of you is a strength that is beyond your ability to recognize or understand. Don’t let people around you tell you you can’t do things that you want to do.’”
He has since heard from people from all over the world regarding his talk. Are his patients afraid to be treated by a doctor with a reading disability? Rhodes reports they are not. In fact, many of the patients he treats have seen his talk before they even meet him for a consultation. And with the perspective that his own journey has given him, he meets his patients with compassion and sensitivity — even providing a handmade drawing of each patient’s heart to help them better understand what defect needs surgical correction. Patients save these drawings, and, Rhodes noted, some keep them framed in their homes.
With the tremendous response to his story have come additional opportunities to tell it. Rhodes will be featured in an upcoming PBS special series, “World of Difference,” that explores learning differences. The episode featuring him and his work at MUSC is scheduled to air in May 2023.
Watch John Rhodes’ powerful TEDxCharleston Talk, “How I overcame my learning disabilities to become a physician,” which has been viewed more than 43,000 times since it was uploaded in May 2022.