At less than one day old, I was flying through the sky on the way to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. My walnut-sized heart contained a congenitally defective aortic valve that would require an immediate catheter-based procedure, open heart surgery at 13 years old, and would necessitate life-long monitoring and re-intervention.
While the memories of my biannual cardiology appointments during my youth are quickly fading, the pervading feeling I recall is one of incredible safety within the walls of the hospital – a testament to the caring nature of the staff of the entire facility. My most notable symptom while growing was a complete intolerance for physical activity – 20 or 30 minutes of running and playing would result in 2 days spread out on the couch recovering from the exhaustion. As such, I was barred from playing any competitive sports, one of the biggest bonding activities of children at my small school. My childhood was filled with just as much happiness as any “normal” child, but that didn’t make it any less of a life-changing relief when I first attended Dr. Bill Neches Heart Camp for Kids, a summer camp where I was finally able to find others who could relate to my medical struggles. The mentoring I received from several counselors there made me realize that any social issues I was encountering due to my condition would fade to nothing in time, and that life promised to hold even greater joys for those of us who have known true pain.
It was around this time that I received open heart surgery. Being forced to contemplate one’s own mortality at such a critical developmental age fundamentally changes the way an individual views the world. Through this self-evaluation spent during many sleepless nights preceding the date of the procedure and weeks spent in bed following it, I began to recognize the fact that I wouldn’t be alive should I have been born even 40 years prior; that every day I have lived is a gift given by doctors, nurses, and every other staff member who has sacrificed and traded their time for my life. It was then that I began awakening to my desire to pursue a career in medicine myself.
Over a decade was far too long to wait to begin repaying this “debt” to the medical system. I wanted to take the first available opportunity – the position of senior counselor at the same summer camp that made an impact on my life just a few years prior. As a student facing the stresses of following the path to being a physician, it is a fantastic experience to be able to be a kid again and experience the sheer joy of a week of canoeing, swimming, campfire songs, and all of the other activities that take place at Heart Camp. Most enjoyable, however, is the experience of mentoring. While I certainly have some lessons and tips to teach my campers about navigating life as an adolescent with a congenital heart defect, I believe I have also learned just as much from them – lessons on courage in the face of adversity, friendship, and never growing too old and serious to smile at everything life brings your way. Seeing the same group of children grow up, mature, and take on leadership positions of their own over the course of several summers have been incredibly rewarding. I think that is the real beauty of Heart Camp – one is never too young nor too old to learn from each other, or to lean on each other for support in the trials that inevitably come our way. It is a network of friends closer than I have ever seen or experienced anywhere else in life.
After being in this position for several years, I became aware of the opportunity to volunteer at Children’s Hospital itself, more specifically volunteering within the Child Life Department. After applying and accepting a position, I was given the opportunity to work with children who were hospitalized and try to brighten their day through play, whether that be by painting, playing video games, or any other variety of activities. I began in “Austin’s Playroom” on the weekends, during which I would interact with children from all units in the hospital. However, I quickly found myself drawn and devoted to the cardiac units, where I now spend my time split between the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) and 7A – the area for more stable cardiac patients.
What I really enjoy about my volunteering at the hospital is building a relationship with patients and the family of the patient over the course of several weeks (or in some cases months to years). To see a patient supported by a ventricular assist device wait for a heart transplant for months, finally receive a heart, and later transition out of the hospital, or to follow a patient from the CICU to the day of discharge is absolutely priceless. Being able to watch a patient smile while being confined to a hospital bed and infused with countless IVs is something that will keep me coming back as long as I live in Pittsburgh.
But to bring this full circle, I return to those who make the hospital “tick.” Whether it be a chief of surgery, a housekeeper, a cook, an engineer, or a member of Child Life, every individual I have come into contact with at the hospital works and acts in a manner that makes one believe they are living their true life’s purpose. Through their lives I have been inspired and taught what living a compassionate life means firsthand. Without them, I would have no story to share with you.
If you are a former (or current) patient of Children’s Hospital, parent of a patient, or have in any way been affected by their life-saving work, I urge you to find some small way to give back regardless of what form that may take. While we’ve all been given gifts we could never hope to repay, I know we can achieve more than we think with our collective sustained efforts.
In closing, I would just like to take a moment to thank those individuals from Children’s who have touched my life in a special way – Dr. Donald Fischer, Dr. Bradley Keller, Dr. Linda Russo, Dr. Victor Morell, Dr. Peter Wearden, Dr. Jacqueline Kreutzer, Dr. Yoshida Masahiro, Dr. Vivek Allada, Beth Moneck, and Matt Brooks. It’s your inspiration that gets me up in the morning to get back at biochemistry and the MCAT.