A Journey Shared – Joseph Burns

In the month of November we are focusing our attention on gratitude, and how despite all the hardships that life brings, there are so many beautiful things for which we have to be grateful. Today we hear from Joseph, a CHD warrior, studying to be a physician himself. 

 Throughout my life, I have been the recipient of numerous gifts which I will never be able to repay. I was born prematurely with a bicuspid aortic valve. My childhood was a series of constant doctor visits. It was during these early years as a patient that I developed an intimate relationship with my own pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Shailaja Nadkarni. Her presence in my life was the first of these gifts, as our relationship transformed from that of a patient and physician to student and educator to admirer and mentor. Her willingness to embrace my interest in congenital heart disease (CHD) undoubtedly set me on my current career path and her consistent support throughout my childhood and young adulthood was transformative in my choice to pursue medicine as a career.

In 2014 it became clear that I would need surgical intervention. The week of my operation was also the last week to accept my invitation to join the Class of 2019 at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University. It was during my surgery that I received my second profound gift—a chance at a healthier life afforded to me by the valve of an organ donor. This thankless, selfless sacrifice has granted me a new lease on my health and I am elated to be surviving and thriving post-correction. This anonymous gesture is one on which I reflect frequently, and I owe it to this donor to live my life to the fullest, not only for my own sake, but for his or hers as well.

During my recovery I spent time focusing on the compassionate pediatric cardiologist that I hope to become. My surgical scar lies across my chest as a reminder of that goal. I am proud of it. It ties me to my past as a patient, my present as a student, my future as a cardiologist, and the unspeakable bond that I will share with my patients and every child that has faced cardiovascular disease.

The third and most unexpected gift came to me in the Fall of 2017 when I applied for and was selected as the recipient of the inaugural Toti Mendez #23 Memorial Scholarship.

Toti Mendez, a sophomore pitcher with the FIU Panthers, was 20 when he died suddenly in 2000 from cardiomyopathy. FIU retired his jersey, number 23. His family established the scholarship and also dedicated “Harvey”, the school’s cardiac auscultation simulator in his honor.

Earlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Ms. Maruchi Mendez, Toti’s mother. Though we had only a few moments together, it seems that we are inextricably bound by our experiences with heart disease and by Toti’s legacy. Her generosity and commitment to Toti’s remembrance that enables me to attend this institution and to chase my dreams to treat individuals like Toti and like me. Toti’s memory endures in my own work, including a dedication in my article “Disparities in Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy: A Narrative Review of Current Literature” scheduled for release in 2018.

And so, for every encounter with Harvey, I am grateful. For every patient encounter in which I am prepared to recognize murmurs, I am thankful. For every child I will treat during my career, I am humbled. For every opportunity afforded to me during my time at this institution, I am privileged. Simply, if not for the contributions of the Mendez family and countless others, I am confident that my educational pursuits would be far more burdensome.

My journey is not mine. If not for the endless love and support of my family, friends, my donor, the Mendez family and every clinician who has treated and trained me, there is no doubt that I would not be in the position in which I find myself today. Now, as I begin interviewing for residency positions across the country, I realize more than ever that this has never been a plight of my own. Rather, with my story includes tomes of family support, of love and loss, of challenges and triumphs, volumes on the life of the donor who has granted me a second chance with my cardiac health and to the anonymous families who recognize a piece of their sons and daughters in me, who feel the magnetic bond of our scars, understanding that we are inextricably linked by our past, our present, and our future. I am elated to continue this journey as a physician, building relationships and transforming life for the welfare of all. However, this has never been a solo venture. My ambitions and my accomplishments, rather, are reflections of all of the generosity and support I have received while expecting nothing in return. It is this selflessness, this altruism that reminds me that I represent the hopes and dreams of countless individuals who have invested in my success. For this army of support and love I am eternally grateful and to have connected with a community of CHD warriors empowers me to continue to reach for my absolute potential in all that I undertake.

 

Joseph Burns is a member of the Class of 2019 at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University in Miami, FL. He is a native of Orlando, FL and is an alumnus of Stetson University. He is passionate about the arts and community engagement, having served as the Art Director of the Mammography Art Initiative and the Community Service Chair for the Panther Learning Communities. His interests include congenital heart disease and American Indian Health. He hopes to pursue a career in adult congenital cardiology.