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From patient to doctor: How Tyler Sexton overcame adversity

Some people may associate the word disability with “limitation.” But, USF alumnus Dr. Tyler Sexton has proven that he is far from it.

Sexton “checks up” with the Marshall Student Center audience and shares his experience on how he did not let his disability define the person he wanted to become.

The motivational speaker shared his story to the audience of about 30 people as the headliner of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity’s (DIEO) Diversity Lecture Series on Wednesday afternoon.

Born at just 20 weeks, Sexton was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 18 months old.

Cerebral palsy is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to move, maintain balance and posture, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,

“There wasn’t much hope for my survival,” Sexton said. “They said that if I didn’t survive, I’d be blind and physically disabled. After 16 surgeries and by the grace of God, I stand here in front of you today.”

Doctors told Sexton that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair and that he would never walk.

Despite the odds, he proved them wrong.

“I’ve fallen and broken almost every bone in my body from attempting to walk,” Sexton said. “But I tried to walk because I didn’t want to be stuck in a wheelchair.”

Sexton shared the quote from evangelical pastor Charles R. Swindoll who said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”

This was living proof for Sexton when he was in fourth grade and came back home from school crying after a substitute physical education instructor humiliated him in front of his classmates for the way he was completing the exercises.

Sexton said his mother, Lisa Sexton, or “sweet potato” as he calls her, noticed that there was something wrong and went to check on him while he cried in his room.

“I’ll never forget that day as I went home crushed and told my mom that I didn’t want to be me anymore and I was tired of having cerebral palsy,” Sexton said.

To Sexton’s surprise, his mother started throwing everything he had out of his room. After wiping out everything in his room except for the bed frame, she asked Sexton what was the thing that she could not take away from him after taking all his physical belongings.

She answered her own question with, “I didn’t take the person God made you to be. No one can take that from you unless you let them.”

Her response would leave a permanent mark on Sexton’s life and push him to pursue his dreams without letting his limitations define him.

Sexton graduated from USF in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences. Despite expressing his love and pride for the university, Sexton admitted that his college experience “was not a pretty and kind one.”

“Every day I was on this college campus, I got made fun of,” Sexton said. “As a matter of fact, I humbly will tell you, I’m amazed that I stand in front of you today in a Diversity Lecture Series because this didn’t exist at all 10 years ago.”

Tired of hearing comments about his condition, Sexton said he started wearing sunglasses and walking with his service dog, Danny, pretending to be blind. Despite his difficult college years, Sexton wrote in his book that the experience brought him closer to his faith in God.

“I want you to remember that if you live by anybody else’s approval, you will die by their rejection,” Sexton said. “I learned very quickly that my circumstances don’t have to define my attitude.”

Driven to become a doctor, Sexton applied to 20 different medical schools and got an interview to five. Despite performing well on the MCAT — the standardized examination for prospective medical students — Sexton was rejected by all the schools he initially applied to and was told by multiple that he would never become a doctor due to his disability.

Sexton ended up attending the University of Sint Eustatius in the Caribbean, a place that he never imagined nor wanted to attend medical school at. While it wasn’t his first choice, that was where Sexton met his future wife, Laura.

Nowadays, Sexton serves as Chair of Pediatrics and Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine at the Singing River Health System in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Sexton said he never planned on being a motivational speaker or writing both of his books, “God Bless These Little Legs” and “No Such Thing as Can’t.”

Now, he says that “my disability gives me credibility.”

“You’re always going to see disability advocacy being an issue. It’s going to get better, it’s going to get stronger,” Sexton said.

“I can’t get rid of cerebral palsy. I’m in pain, I hurt. Some days are good. Some days are bad. But I keep moving. I don’t let it define me. And that’s the difference. This has given us a pass to do something special.”

Despite going through several hardships, Sexton said he has stayed driven and motivated to chase his goals. Although Sexton admitted that he used to not dream big enough, he said that he found motivation through his faith and by learning the meaning of happiness.

“We’re always choosing or chasing after happiness, that’s always going to be flat,” Sexton said. “No matter what I’m going through, I know I have a purpose. I saw what I needed to do and I decided to pursue it. No matter what the world says or what the world does, they’re not going to stop my dream.

“I was not going to let nobody steal my joy, because I knew I was going for a purpose and it didn’t matter what it would take, slowly I was going to make it there. And that’s the difference. Don’t let what has been done to you overshadow what’s been done for you.”