When you consider the total person, few people who took part in the Air Force Marathon on Saturday stood taller than Dr. Nadia Merchant.
And she’s 3-foot-7.
As she competed in the half marathon – wearing a black cap and Nike head covering to adhere to her Muslim faith and taking short steps because of her rare genetic recessive condition that limits her height – the 31-year-old runner said she got some curious looks and a few questions from fellow competitors.
But that was nothing. Those same people really would do a double take if they saw what she does once she takes off those pink running shoes and puts on a white lab coat.
After completing her pediatric residency at Dayton Children’s Hospital and Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine in 2014, she returned to her native Houston and now is completing her pediatric endocrine fellowship at Texas Children’s Hospital there.
And she’s been something of a classroom marvel along the way. Thanks to an accelerated program, it took her just six years to complete both her undergrad degree and medical school.
A world traveler – who has done everything from getting her MD at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar to run a half marathon in Sydney, Australia — she speaks numerous languages including Urdu and Hindi.
She was selected as one of just three women to be profiled in “On Beauty,” a documentary about the work of award-winning fashion photographer Rick Guidotti, who founded the non-profit organization Positive Exposure, which presented positive portrayals of people with genetic conditions.
She was also part of a that organization’s Pearl Project and blogged and answered questions from teenagers, all in an effort to teach tolerance, empathy and an appreciation for diversity.
“People might think that my challenge is my short stature,” she said with a laugh on an “On Beauty” webisode. “But honestly, maybe that’s your challenge because it’s not mine.”
‘Anything is possible’
Her parents are of Pakistani and Indian descent and she was born in Houston. But when she was a third and fourth grader her dad’s engineering job took the family to Qatar.
After returning to Houston, her father’s work then relocated them to Saudi Arabia for a while.
Because of her acromesomelic dysplasia – the rare skeletal disorder that caused her shortness – she often drew scrutiny growing up.
“When you’re a little kid and you look different and you know you are different, everyday you’re somehow reminded by classmates that ‘Oh you’re short! Oh you’re this!’” she said in the webisode. “I was called a midget. I was called a dwarf.”
She said the proper term is Little Person.
But thanks to her parents she said she was taught she need not give quarter to anyone.
“I have to really give it to my parents, they definitely made sure we always challenged ourselves,” she said Sunday before boarding a flight back to Houston.
Her two younger brothers – one is 27 and one is 14 — are Little People as well, she said.
“Our parents never let us feel like we couldn’t do something,” she said. “A lot of how you act has to do with the way you are perceived by your parents and other people around you.
“Our parents were very encouraging. The focus was on education. but it was also that you can do what any other kid can do. So I was driving a car at 16. You were just made to feel anything is possible.”
As a runner she has now done nine half marathons with her best time at three hours, 17 minutes.
Besides Saturday’s race – where her time was slowed by nearly an hour because of the extreme heat that got the event black flagged and runners were told to walk – she’s competed in Gilbert. Arizona, Galveston, Sydney and several times in Houston.
‘Doing something that matters’
Nadia said she enjoyed the three years she lived here – “the people are very warm and I made some really good friends.” – and it was because of the Air Force Marathon that she finally began distance running four years ago back in Houston,
“When I was here I lived right behind Wright State and I remember how some streets got shut down because of the marathon and it was a really big deal,” she said. “I thought that would be nice to do one day.”
She said she doesn’t know of many Little People who are distance runners, but that didn’t deter her:
“I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could do a run like that and then I really enjoyed it. And it’s become a great way for me to travel and see places.”
Interestingly, just before she completed her race on Saturday, Alison Bales crossed the half marathon finish line. At 6-foot-7, she represented the other end of the height spectrum.
While she’s best known as a standout basketball player at Beavercreek High, Duke and in the WNBA, she has much in common with Nadia, as well. She was schooled at WSU’s Boonshoft School of Medicine and now is a surgeon in Indianapolis.
Today both women are back at work helping people.
Nadia specializes in pediatrics and genetics and has found she has a real connection with kids, especially those who are Little People.
“They get excited and they’re curious and have lots of questions,” she said. “It feels like I’m really doing something that matters when I work with kids who have challenges and help them really maximize their potential.”