Opinion + Voices

A UCLA doctor’s journey from patient to physician

Dr. Leigh Reardon’s experiences as a child open-heart surgery patient taught him an empathy that creates a uniquely open relationship with his patients

Dr Leigh Reardon
Courtesy of Leigh Reardon

Leigh Reardon

Dr. Leigh Reardon is assistant clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the transitional cardiac care program for adolescents with congenital heart disease and the pediatric mechanical circulatory support program. This story appeared in U Magazine, the quarterly magazine of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

There sometimes comes a moment when you realize that what you’ve always believed to be your greatest weakness is in fact the source of your greatest strength. For me, that awakening began to flicker when I first considered entering medicine as my college years were coming to a close. I had been studying literature and economics, and I figured I would probably end up going to law school or into academia. I was working summers as a lifeguard, and to boost my pay, I decided to become an emergency medical technician (EMT). On the first day of class, the woman sitting next to me noticed the scar peeking out from the top of my shirt, and she began to cry.

“You had open-heart surgery,” she said, as she leaned into me. She was right on target; when I was 5 years old, a surgeon cut into my chest to enlarge the narrow pulmonary valve that controlled the flow of blood from my heart to my lungs.

“You don’t know what it means to me to see someone who is in their 20s going to college and doing well,” she said, telling me that her young daughter had a severe form of congenital heart disease and was about to undergo her third heart surgery in a few months. The woman was in the EMT class to learn what to do if her daughter had a medical emergency at home. After a couple more classes, she asked if I’d be willing to 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 tenderness and offers a touchstone for us to connect and care for our patients.

And while early in my career, I didn’t want to tell patients about my history for fear they might feel it somehow deflected from their 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.

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