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meet her daughter and the rest of her family. Over a few meals
together that spring, something changed for each of us. Her
daughter opened up and seemed more playful. My new friend
and her husband became more relaxed and more comfortable
expressing tenderness toward their daughter. As I observed
these changes unfold, I wondered if law or academia was really
the right step for me.
I don’t look back on my heart surgery as a particularly
traumatic or pivotal time. But I do remember the office visits,
walking into the hospital on the day of my surgery, the smell of
the hallways, the nurses, the doctors and the stuffed animals.
After the operation, I was able to engage in the same activities as
other kids; I swam competitively in the summer and put on ice
skates in the winter and played hockey. In the summer months,
my scar was much-more visible and some of the coaches on the
teams I was on called it my “worm.” The coaches were being
playful, but kids can be cruel when one has a difference, so I
learned to protect myself and compensate the best I could. As
a teen and college student, I was encouraged by my doctors
to consider medicine, but that never felt like an option for me.
I was a patient, not a physician.
Then came this chance meeting with this woman in an EMT
class. Maybe my personal experience would help me to be a
good physician. It felt like such a risk — this was not the path
I had set out upon — and I was scared of organic chemistry
and all the competitive pre-meds. My college mentors, however,
believed that medicine would be a good fit and worth exploring.
So I did what comes natural to all human beings: I avoided
making a decision. I told myself that I would take a year off
and then enter a pre-med program.
One year turned into two, and two turned into three. I
found myself working in corporate America, writing speeches
and news releases for executives. I enjoyed the work, but I
wasn’t very good at it. One night, I stayed late to work on a
frustrating project, and the next day defeat must have been
written all over my face, because a woman in the office sat down
at my desk and said to me, “Don’t let a car payment prevent
you from going to medical school.” That was an odd statement,
I thought, until she explained, “A decade ago, my car broke
down and I bought a new car. Having that loan made it too
hard to go back to school.”
The next week, I signed up for general chemistry, and while I
struggled to adjust to a science curriculum, slowly it all started to
come into focus. In the end, I trained as a hybrid of an adult and
pediatric cardiologist, and today I care for patients with congenital
heart disease from birth into adulthood, as well as children and
young adults with heart transplants.
For the most part, I went
through my medical
training without revealing my
personal history; I didn’t want my
heart condition to be perceived
as the reason I got into medicine.
But as I later began to share my
story with colleagues, I found
that personal history plays an
important role for many of us
who choose to pursue medicine.
Whether it is from an experience
of childhood illness or cancer
in the family or friends or loved
ones with other grave medical
conditions, there is a common
thread that reveals human
Dr. Leigh C. Reardon is assistant
tenderness and offers a touchstone
clinical professor of medicine and
pediatrics in the David Geffen
for us to connect and care for
School of Medicine at UCLA and
director of the Transitional Cardiac
And while early in my career,
Care Program for Adolescents with
Congenital Heart Disease and the
I didn’t want to tell patients about
Pediatric Mechanical Circulatory
my history for fear they might feel
it somehow deflected from their
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Leigh C. Reardon
own experience, I couldn’t have
been more wrong. Instead, I found
that my patients open up more. They ask more-insightful questions
and have a greater willingness to talk about issues that make
them feel vulnerable. They are more willing to share their hopes
and fears and to admit to behaviors that affect their care, such
as non-compliance and drug use. And my patients hug me more.
My school-age patients think it’s pretty cool that their doctor has
a scar like theirs; my teen patients feel like I “get it;” and my adult
patients lean on me to make good decisions and help them through
life events like pregnancy.
When I look back on that chance meeting in my EMT class,
I’m thankful for the woman who sat next to me and grateful
that she allowed me to look beyond my own scar to discover
my strength and find my life’s work and passion.