Second Chances and Serving Others

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Photo by Briana Brough
Photo by Briana Brough

On Friday, September 18, 2015, as the sun rose over another beautiful Chapel Hill morning, I was on the treadmill at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, when out of the blue and with no warning, I suddenly collapsed and died.

To be more precise, I suffered a cardiac arrest (also known as “clinical death”), received cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), was brought back with an automated external defibrillator (AED) and taken to UNC Hospitals for an emergency cardiac catheterization and two coronary artery stents.

While there was no flash of light – not particular great insight – this episode changed me forever. I’m still in the process of recovering physically and emotionally from the event and expect I will be for the rest of my life.

As a result, I have had a focused opportunity to deeply reflect on my life and career. For the past 20 years, I have been involved in the care of the critically ill and injured, especially those with severe burn injuries, as a surgeon and critical care physician at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Medical Center.

Nestled within the UNC Health Care complex, the burn center at UNC is one of the largest and busiest burn facilities in the U.S. Supported by the generosity of the people of North Carolina since before it opened in 1981, this facility is also one of the most comprehensive and innovative burn centers in the world.

Working at the burn center has been in my blood for decades. I remember buying jelly from the Jaycees in the 1970s in an effort to raise funds to build the center when it was first introduced to the community. A decade later, during one of my first rotations as a surgery intern in the burn center, I was drawn to the impressive multidisciplinary care and service provided there.

A few years later, while on active duty in the U.S. Navy in Guam, I took care of people with severe burn injuries following the Korean Air Flight 801 airline crash in 1997 that occurred a mile from naval housing where I lived with my young family. After returning to Chapel Hill in 1999, I completed my training and joined the UNC surgical facility in 2000. Over the years, I have started a basic science research laboratory in the department of microbiology and immunology, worked on increasing faculty diversity and expanded military programs at UNC, including the new physician assistant program that opened in 2016. For the past eight years, I have had the distinct honor to serve as the medical director of the burn center at UNC.

Little of this professional experience prepared me for what I had to face following my cardiac arrest. But one unique and innovative program in the burn center has been enormously helpful. Our aftercare program helps patients integrate into school and society after a burn injury. This program provides a lifetime of spiritual and emotional support for our survivors. The burn center has over 20,000 burn survivors in its database, and many of them have been involved in the aftercare program for decades – I have learned a lot from them all.

I am not sure what the future holds for me or for all of us. But to be sure, I have learned that living a life in the service of others makes it worthwhile and that no matter our status or situation, it truly is better to give than to receive.

DR. BRUCE CAIRNS has been a resident of the area on and off for over 40 years. Of note, in the 1970s, the Cairns family purchased their home through Mel Rashkis Realty, and Bruce’s English teacher at Culbreth Junior High School was Zora Rashkis. A proud graduate of Chapel Hill High School (’81), Dr. Cairns now lives with his family in Chatham County just a few miles from where he grew up.

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Dr. Bruce Cairns

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