From Patient to Physician: A Personal Journey | U Magazine | UCLA Health

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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 our patients. 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 Support Program. 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. U MAGAZINE 53