Tips to Live By

A Father's Battle With a Rare Blood Disorder Inspires His Son to Become a Hematologist

June 17, 2021 - Ashley White

Ethan Burns has his father to thank for putting him on his path to a career as a physician. Ethan credits his current role as hematology fellow on two major life experiences that both involve his father, Kevin Burns.

The first experience is typical of most fathers and sons. On his 16th birthday, Ethan's father told him it was time to get a job. Kevin worked in health care finance at a local hospital in Arizona that happened to be looking for a patient transporter. Ethan started just a few days later.

He stayed focused on the job at hand, getting his charges quickly and safety to their destination and seldom engaged with the people he transported. One day, he was called to take a premature baby boy for a CT scan. As Ethan wheeled the child through the halls, the baby sobbed uncontrollably.

Ethan felt a sharp instinct to reach out and touch the child.

"We didn't typically touch the patients, but I just felt like he needed somebody," says Ethan. "I held out my finger and he grabbed it. It calmed him down a little bit too."

At that moment, Ethan knew he wanted to be a doctor.

The second experience that impacted Ethan's career choices is more atypical. In 2015, Ethan was two years into medical school at Trinity School of Medicine in Saint Vincent and the Grinadines, and Kevin had relocated to serve as CFO at Houston Methodist — when another life-altering event occurred. Kevin was hospitalized for 50 days and intubated twice due to atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome (AHUS), a rare blood disorder.

Impacting fewer than 200,000 people nationally, the disease causes blood clots to form in a person's blood vessels. The clots can damage organs, namely the kidneys, and cause red blood cells to explode when they try to move past the clots, causing anemia.

"I was a medical student with a sick dad and a lot of questions," says Ethan.

Thankfully, Dr. Lawrence Rice at Houston Methodist had the expertise to identify this rare blood disorder and knew how to treat it. Advances in AHUS treatment mean it's becoming a chronic condition; and Kevin is now back to biking and fishing with his sons, and now his grandchildren.

Kevin's diagnosis spurred more than questions about his father's health for Ethan. The process of how the disease developed fascinated him. When it was time to choose a specialty area, he not only knew what he wanted that to be but also where he wanted to learn it.

Ethan is now a fellow in Hematology and Medical Oncology at Houston Methodist Cancer Center. An important part of training for residents and fellows is clinical trials that help further a specific field of medicine.

"I started to feel like this is where I could make a difference," says Ethan. "I can also relate on a personal level."

"I was a bit surprised and I was really proud," says Kevin. "You have to have a calling to be in health care and it has meant a lot to be part of Ethan's journey."

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Categories: Tips to Live By