Showing ‘Love’ to others in need
For Clarissa Love, her experience managing an “invisible” disability has inspired her to become a visible champion for those in need.
Love was born with spina bifida, a birth defect caused by a baby’s spine not fully forming in the womb.
“Most people are familiar with severe cases of spina bifida — where an individual’s spine is actually exposed at birth,” said Love, a project associate manager with Michigan Medicine’s Office for Health Equity and Inclusion (OHEI). “My form can best be described as ‘hidden’ because my spine was enclosed at birth and a lot of the symptoms I deal with are now difficult for others to even notice.”
In honor of National Birth Defects Awareness Month, Love shared her story and how she works to impact lives at Michigan Medicine.
Growing up, Love faced a number of barriers and physical challenges.
“From the ages of 12 to 16, I struggled to walk and used a wheelchair for mobility because the dexterity and strength in my leg muscles was quickly deteriorating due to my spina bifida and a recent tethered cord diagnosis,” said Love. “After spending most of my time in intensive rehab in Chicago after multiple surgeries, I finally regained the ability to walk on my own.”
Love refocused on her academics, eventually enrolling at U-M for her Ph.D. in physics. As she traversed the academically-demanding program, Love found that the mobility she had once gained back in her legs was once again diminishing due to prolonged periods of sedentary studying.
Eventually, that setback forced her to become a patient at Michigan Medicine — an experience that changed her life.
“At one point, I went through a 23-day hospital stay,” Love said. “That really opened my eyes to the fact that I wanted to pursue a career where I could directly impact the lives of others in need, whether they face personal health challenges or obstacles in their own community.”
Elevating diversity, equity and inclusion
Love regained her physical strength — she’s now able to walk without assistance — and eventually applied for a position with OHEI, determined to leverage her own experiences of living with a disability to promote an inclusive environment at Michigan Medicine.
“My work at OHEI allows me to develop innovative programs designed around elevating diversity, equity and inclusion,” Love said. “(DEI) has become my life’s passion.”
As part of the university’s five-year DEI strategic plan, Love and her colleagues interviewed thousands of faculty and staff members regarding which initiatives needed to be prioritized at Michigan Medicine.
“In those conversations, it became increasingly clear that discussing disability access was a major need in the organization,” said Love. “That’s why I helped spearhead the Michigan Medicine Disability Council, a group that focuses on disability awareness and advocacy for patients, faculty, staff and learners.”
The council meets once a month and In December 2017, it was recognized with the Distinguished Diversity Leaders Award, demonstrating how crucial this type of work is at the academic medical center.
A source of pride
Love plays a number of other roles in OHEI — often facilitating diversity-related trainings in which members of the organization learn how to demonstrate equity within their own departments and units. Some of that work involves educating others about what it’s like to have a disability.
“Every one of us has multiple identities — race, gender, sexual orientation, age … disability is just one part of that identity and it’s one that isn’t always visible to your colleagues,” Love said. “It’s thrilling to play a role in ensuring that people have the opportunity to succeed at Michigan Medicine no matter their own identity.”
In the end, Love said such work is a source of joy for herself and her colleagues: “Our work as DEI advocates allows us all to constantly evolve and grow when it comes to our awareness of those around us — and through this growth, we all become better teammates and better leaders and, ultimately, create a better organization.”