Justin McMahan was born legally blind. Diagnosed with ocular albinism, a condition that reduces the coloring of the iris, McMahan has severely impaired sharpness of vision and problems with depth perception.
His doctors told his parents he would never be able to attend a regular school and that he would probably need to file for disability when he graduated from high school. But they chose not to let his condition hold him back.
“My parents always said, ‘He may need a little more assistance, but let him work through it,’” McMahan said.
McMahan’s parents treated him as though he wasn’t legally blind. Growing up, he attended a regular school, played football, wrestled and even rode dirt bikes. And when it came time for him to graduate high school, he knew there was a job out there for him.
“I was raised to believe there’s always something I can do,” McMahan said. “There were some limitations when I thought about nursing school, but I knew I could do something in the medical field.”
Finding the right fit
McMahan’s dad was a respiratory therapist and thought his son may be interested in following in his footsteps. McMahan attended Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and began taking classes.
“I decided I didn’t like that in any way,” McMahan said. “I started to look at other options, and then my dad said they were opening a sleep lab at Novant Health Thomasville Medical Center.”
Before pursuing this new field, McMahan shadowed one of the sleep technologists at the Thomasville Medical Center sleep center in Thomasville, North Carolina, and loved it. He completed clinical hours with a sleep technician in the lab and taught himself the bookwork. But after finishing up his training, the only jobs available were in Charlotte, North Carolina, and McMahan couldn’t travel. He found another job in retail until more positions opened up.
One day, he got a call from Mike Crabb, manager of respiratory care at Thomasville Medical Center. Within two weeks, McMahan was hired as a sleep tech.
For a while, McMahan was the only sleep tech. After working hard and learning for more than eight years, he spoke with Crabb about more responsibility. That conversation led to his role as the lead sleep technician of the Novant Health Sleep Center at Thomasville Medical Center.
Under McMahan’s leadership, the center was able to expand from two beds to four. It snowballed from there. Crabb became the manager of the Novant Health Sleep Center at Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem as well. He told McMahan, “I don’t have any other candidates for the lead tech position there, so could you do both?”
So he did. With McMahan’s help, the center at Forsyth Medical Center has grown from four beds to eight, with the potential to go to 10.
Making a difference
“My favorite part of my job is the interaction with patients,” McMahan said. “I love speaking with the older ones and hearing stories about their lives.”
McMahan said he also loves the difference he gets to make when people finally get their continuous positive airway pressure, more commonly called CPAP, machines to help with sleep apnea.
“Some of these people have been living a terrible life because they’re sleeping horribly at night and can’t stay awake during the day,” McMahan said. “Getting them on proper therapy and hearing them say they haven’t felt that way in years is really satisfying.”
Persevering despite a disability
When asked what he would say to someone who has an obstacle to overcome, McMahan said, “The only thing standing in the way of what you want is yourself.
“It’s all a mind-set. If you can overcome it, it can make you stronger in the end.”