PEG Scholar Update: Jason Heard

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By Jeanne LaSargeBono

Jason Heard Describes His Journey From Burn Survivor to Medical Resident

Jason (left) with his brother Ryan and sister-in-law Katie

Ask Jason Heard what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he will answer, “a pilot.” You can hear the smile in his voice through the phone as he explains that he really didn’t have a strong calling to be a pilot—as a matter-of-fact, he didn’t know what he wanted to be at all. But he was an energetic kid and a bit of a daredevil and thrillseeker, so the answer, pilot, seemed to be a pretty logical and exciting response. As life would have it, pursuing a career as a pilot was not in the cards for him. Jason suffered a traumatic burn injury at the age of 12, which became a significant turning point in his life—inspiring him to pursue a career in medicine—as a burn surgeon. This is Jason’s story:

Tell us about your story growing up.

I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. I was a pretty average kid, for the most part. I was very active and I loved being outdoors…I was also a bit ADD (attention deficit disorder), actually. [He laughs.] Like many kids, I really didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. Some kids seem to have that clarity, but more often than not, most kids don’t have a clue, and I was one of those. I just knew that I liked things that were exciting and thrilling. I even had the opportunity to take flying lessons while staying with my aunt and uncle in Wisconsin. But a clear calling? No, I was not that kid. What I can tell you, is that my burn injury provided that clarity for me. It really made me pick a direction and helped to solidify my interest in medicine and science.

How did your burn injury occur?

My accident happened on May 2, 2003. I was 12 years old and we were outside fueling a bonfire. I poured gasoline on the fire and, as gasoline does, the flames followed the stream back to the can and exploded. I suffered secondand third-degree burns on 40% of my body. Initially, I was rushed to the Des Moines Hospital, but then was airlifted to the University of Iowa Burn Treatment Center, where I spent the next 5 weeks. I had multiple surgeries and received grafts to over 30% of my body, and was later sent to Covenant Rehabilitation Center in Waterloo,Iowa, for physical therapy for another month. I was finally discharged just a few days before my 13th birthday.

What was it like returning home?

When I was discharged, I initially went home to my dad’s house; my parents were divorced. My older brother had a chocolate Labrador puppy waiting there for me. He was a gift for my 13th birthday—and I named him “Rolo.” That was my most outstanding memory.

Overall I recall that wasn’t too bad going home and having to deal with my injuries. I know that I was fortunate because I didn’t encounter any major social challenges. I had a very loyal, close group of friends, and since it was still summer time…school wasn’t in session…I had time to acclimate to being fresh out of the hospital with bandages and scars. My friends had time to acclimate to my changed appearance and scars His dog, Rolo, provided Jason the incentive he needed to stay positive after his injury.too. So when school started, it wasn’t that big of a deal because they were there for me. If there were any insults or bad comments made, they certainly weren’t made in front of me! I never really experienced any bullying incidents because it’s likely that my friends just took care of things that were said behind my back for me! [Jason chuckles warmly.]

I have to say that having a puppy was a big incentive to be occupied and focused on something positive during my recovery. That dog was really the best thing; he was great therapy. He was smart—and, of course, being a Lab, he required a lot of my focus and attention. My brother and I became very involved in his training and got him certified to compete in obedience trials, agility trials, and tracking tests through the American Kennel Club (AKC). We were actually able to get some pretty high titles for being a junior handler. It was a great way of being active, productive, and motivated—and being outdoors. Rolo died several years ago at just 8 years old. He was my most loyal companion…but he likely got cancer just as I was heading to medical school.

It sounds like your brother was very close to you. Describe his influence on your recovery.

I was very fortunate because my family was very supportive during my recovery. My older brother, Ryan, was particularly supportive because he could really understand the emotional challenges of a severe injury or disability; he became a paraplegic as the result of a tumor on his spinal cord at the age of 13. He instinctively knew what I “wasn’t talking about” because he really understood the emotional challenges of having your life change in an instant. He would encourage me and tell me, “Don’t let it get you down,” and “Life has so much more in store for you.” He was incredible and I owe a lot to him for his support during that time.

So what was the turning point that motivated you to pursue a career in medicine?

Jason (left), with his 2 brothers, says his family was very supportive during his recovery.When I returned back to high school, I had some limitations as I healed, of course. In truth, being burned had forced me to be more mature than my peers who hadn’t gone through such a traumatic experience. I became more focused and discovered my passion for science; it seemed like that door was suddenly wide open. I took an EMT (emergency medical technician) class and became EMT-certified in high school because I liked being able to help people and I liked the study of science because it could be used to help people—from their worst situation to getting better again. My interest in science and the positive impact of the surgeons who cared for me at the burn center were definitely a factor in my program choice in college, and I enrolled in the genetics and biotechnology program at the University of Iowa as I pursued the pre-medicine prerequisite courses.

Who were your mentors and how did they influence you?

I have been fortunate to have many mentors in my life. One of the most significant influences on my aspirations to become a burn surgeon is Dr. Kealey from the University of Iowa Burn Center. Dr. Kealey took care of me during the majority of my hospitalization. I was in awe of him. When I was hospitalized, he had a very direct bedside manner; he didn’t sugar-coat the facts. He would clearly and factually tell me what was going on with my treatment and surgeries so that I was fully informed to the best of my capability. He always encouraged me and would say, “You’ll get through this—keep working hard.” He also made it very clear that he would never give up on me. When I had a graft that failed on my face, he looked directly at me and said, “I won’t give up on this until it’s right. I want this to look good.” And I knew that he meant it.

My mom, on the other hand, wasn’t as big of a fan. She would ask him the same question every day, Was her son going to make it through? And, of course, he couldn’t give her the answer she wanted and he would say so pointblank. She didn’t really like that answer. But he talked to me to make sure that I knew he would never give up doing his best for me. I believed him—and needed to believe him.

Later in high school, I toured the University of Iowa and made the decision that I wanted to attend college there. I consider my roots Iowa and don’t think there was any other place I wanted to be. During my undergraduate program, I had the opportunity to perform some research projects under the guidance of 2 other burn surgeons, Drs. Wibbenmeyer and Latenser. All of the burn surgeons would take time out from their busy schedules to talk with me, mentor me, and even gave me the opportunity to be in the operating room as an undergrad student. They really took me under their wings. Dr. Kealey’s mentorship was so enlightening for me because Dr. Kealey has an “old school” approach and intelligence; he has the kind of intellect where he can refer to articles, recite sections and the page numbers, and discuss their application thoroughly—he’s intellectually brilliant, actually. I aspire to be like Dr. Kealey someday. I hope to have that capacity for knowledge of the science of burn care and I hope to put all of that knowledge and my skills into improving burn care for patients. I could only hope to impact the field of burn medicine and burn patients’ lives the way Dr. Kealey has.

Describe your medical school experience.

I was in my last year of college and having a pretty miserable day—I had actually failed my first (and only) test ever in a graduate-level bioinformatics course and I was really bummed. Halfway through class I got an email that I been accepted into the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. The angst I felt about that test was just gone! I went to the hospital that day and shared the news with my mentors—and then later that night celebrated with friends. The dream was becoming a reality.

While in medical school, Jason traveled to Zambia, Africa, where he saw the need for advancing burn care "beyond our borders."I always knew that I wanted to specialize in surgery and burns while in medical school. It was an unwavering goal for me because I felt such a strong connection to the burn unit. During my first 2 years the education track was heavy with didactics, lectures, and labs—not a lot of clinical settings. It was during this phase of my education that I had the opportunity to go to Zambia, Africa, 3 times with Dr. Barbara Latenser, the former burn director at the University of Iowa Burn Treatment Center. I had had the opportunity to work with her on research projects and to teach burn care in an African rural mission hospital. Dr. Latenser was passionate about burn care and burn prevention education. Her ultimate goal was a centralized center for burn care that offered advances in burn surgery and an education curriculum focused on burn prevention that could serve the entire continent of Africa and be spread to the local communities. The involvement in this work gave me a deep appreciation for the responsibility in advancing burn care beyond our borders.

My following clinical years involved rotations through all of the basic programs in a hospital setting. I rotated through general surgery, emergency surgery, trauma, burns, and family medicine, to name few. I really liked the family medicine because you were able to interact with the whole family along the way. The other surgical programs were more the “one and done” experiences and it was likely you may never see the patient again. Burn surgery is the exception to that because, as you know, burns are life-long healing and recovery, so you have the opportunity to interact with people and get to know their stories, progress, setbacks, and successes. It’s so much more rewarding for me.

Now that you’ve graduated from medical school, what is your residency program like?

I’m 4 months into my residency program at UC Davis Hospital and Regional Burn Center in Sacramento, California. The biggest difference between residency and medical school is that you had limited responsibility in medical school—in effect you were really shadowing and spending a lot of time in intense learning and skill development. But overnight, as a resident, you have become the doctor making the decisions and doing what is in the best interests of the patient. You are responsible for the plans, the orders, and the thought process that support the patient’s optimal care. That is a heavy responsibility. And for me, it was an immediate change in physical demand as well. The job requires that you put in very long, challenging hours—so you learn to build up endurance and you physically adapt, almost overnight, to the intense demands and high responsibilities. I find that the nurses are a great resource and immensely helpful during rounds; they are a great source of information about patient cases and they are helpful with discussing the various aspects of the patient’s care with you. I really respect their work.

Have you experienced any disappointments or unexpected challenges during your residency work?

Because I am so early into the residency program, I haven’t encountered any significant disappointment or emotional challenges, such as the loss of a close patient or traumatic event, but I know it’s coming. [He pauses and is quiet]. You can’t do this line of work and not be affected.

Share how your experience has provided insight to the needs of the burn community.

My goal as a burn surgeon is to make a difference to what I see as the “missing pieces of the burn puzzle.” By this I mean that I would like to see scientific advancements in burn care to significantly improve treatments for burn patients and I would improve access to reconstructive care, such as lasers and other innovative solutions. I would also like to see an increased expansion of psychosocial care—all built around or as an extension of care with the burn centers.

From my experience in the burn community, I see a disparity, or gaps, in support. The pediatric support process is not perfect, but is far more defined in helping burn-injured children integrate back into life than the adult support process. The hospitals and burn centers are often very involved in connecting young survivors to burn camps, school reentry programs, and prevention programs. The UI Burn Treatment Center offers Miracle Burn Camp for kids ages 8-18, a [Safe Start] burn prevention program, and Young Adult track to bring young adult survivors together and support their emotional healing and assimilation back into the community.

I’m a huge supporter of the burn camp experience for burn-injured kids. I was fortunate to attend Miracle Burn Camp, [sponsored by UI Burn Treatment Center and St. Florian Fire and Burn Foundation], most years after my injury. It was one of the most significant aspects of my recovery; it helped me to move on and accept who I was. At burn camp, we were able to discuss our struggles, learn new skills, and establish a network of friends that really understood. Along with my family support, burn camp was key to helping me to push through my burn injuries. I eventually became a counselor at the camp and, later, a member of the board of the St. Florian Fire and Burn Foundation. It is a truly transformative experience for these kids—by the end of the week at camp, they don’t care who sees their scars; they have gained self-acceptance. I also feel a real sense of loss when I see parents who won’t allow their children to go to camp, because I know that camp experience makes long-term recovery so much easier.

On the other hand, the adult track for psychosocial recovery has gaps in available support and services. I was fortunate to participate in the Phoenix SOAR [Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery] program at the UI Burn Treatment Center. The Phoenix SOAR program was active at the UI Burn Treatment Center [in 2009], and I became a Phoenix SOAR-trained peer supporter in 2012. I was active in the Phoenix SOAR program at every opportunity, and for those patients in acute hospitalization, I would try to stick my head in every day—if just to say “hello.” I find that the Phoenix SOAR program is important for burn patients because it offers compassion, understanding, and often the first real glimmer of hope from someone who really understands what they are going through.

But when an adult patient is discharged from the hospital there is often a significant gap in their care, although some post-discharge support services are available—Phoenix Society offers online support, such as online chat, and many burn centers offer support groups. Adult survivors still have limited access or awareness of services that may be available. And, as adults, they often hesitate to reach out for help.

Because of my experience as a burn survivor, I am much more aware of the difficulties others are facing or have faced. Many burn providers assume that when a burn patient goes to the clinic, and their physical recovery is complete, that’s it—they are fully healed. The reality is burn survivors also require emotional healing. Adults often experience psychosocial challenges with recovery; they deal with the effects of trauma, challenges with scars, and challenges with social reintegration, such as returning to work or even going out in public. Often we find that adults without support after discharge become isolated, withdrawn, and struggle years out from an injury because they haven’t had the support or services to help them fully heal. The gap is significant and the need is huge.

You’ve spoken about your mentors and how they have inspired you to make a difference to the burn community. How do you envision your future work making a difference to the burn community?

My ultimate goal is to become a burn and plastic surgeon to help burn survivors, just as I was helped in 2003. I would like to be involved in transformative research in burn care to significantly improve the treatment of burns and to make these treatments available to as many burn patients throughout the world as possible. Additionally, I would like to be instrumental in bringing together the missing pieces of the burn care puzzle to create a holistic care program at the burn centers. My hope is that leading-edge treatments, psychosocial support, and reconstructive treatments are available to every burn patient.


Jason Heard is a 2013 Phoenix Education Grant (PEG) recipient. He is currently completing his general surgery residency program at the University of California Davis Medical Center. He has also been able to rotate through the Firefighters Burn Institute Regional Burn Center under the guidance of Dr. David G. Greenhalgh, MD, FACS, Chief of Burns, and former Phoenix Society board member. We celebrate his dream to build a future where burn survivors can find a better quality of care and quality of life, and we look forward to the future contributions of Jason P. Heard, MD, to the global burn community.


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support Magazine, Issue 3, 2016.  Burn Support Magazine is a tri-annual publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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