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Doctor Finds Purpose Working In Burn Center Where He Was Treated As Teen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Experience can change your perspective, and your course in life. That's just what it did for Dr. Jon Gayken, a surgeon with the Hennepin County Medical Center Burn Center. He treats people, young and old, who have burns, frost bite or wounds that require skin grafts, surgery, or other care. It's his own experience that led him back to where he himself was treated.

Dr. Jon Gayken is a familiar face in the halls of the HCMC Burn Center. It's where he did his residency, and where he's been a surgeon for more than a decade.

Nurse Pat Anderson and Dr. Gayken have known each other for even longer.  Their initial relationship was nurse-patient. Rewind to when Dr. Gayken was just Jon, a 17-year-old who loved football.

He was diagnosed with a rare blood infection.

"It's a form of meningitis but then the bacteria that causes that gets into your blood stream and causes a systemic effect and in response to the certain bacteria that I had the blood vessels in my arms and legs and some other areas, the scar on my forehead and things like that died," Dr. Gayken said.

The way to treat the potentially deadly infection was through skin grafts at the Burn Center.

"Being a young, scared kid I actually at one point asked one of the nurses, I was like, 'Am I going to die,' because everything was sort of happening around me," Dr. Gayken said.

He said about 40 percent of his body died. His hands, arms, legs and a few spots on his face.

Jon needed to learn to walk again.

"No matter what you go through after that, you remember that stuff," Dr. Gayken said.

It's this traumatic experience as a teen that led Jon to become a doctor. And more specifically a doctor who would treat patients like him.

"It sort of became my identity and my purpose. It's like, well this happened to me so that I could go and be a doctor and take care of people," Dr. Gayken said.

He realizes he treats some of the sickest patients in the hospital. And the injury may be the most significant thing to happen to a family, or a community, as in his case. And so Dr. Gayken's approach reflects that.

"Because I remember what it was like and still know what it's like to deal with those emotions and feelings you can, you know it when you see it. And so when you see people struggling you can kind of tell that that's happening to them. That they're ready for the conversation of, 'Hey, this happened to me,'" Dr. Gayken said.

There's a point in the doctor-patient relationship that he pulls back his sleeves.

"I show them just to give a little bit of legitimacy to what I'm saying. A lot of times it just changes our relationship," Dr. Gayken said.

And you can understand why. Patient Christopher Shueler admits it changed his perspective.

"I think it's awesome. Can't get any cooler than working in something that you've been through. Period," he said.

Dr. Gayken said there are still hard days, but the good far outweigh them. And it's that notion of the future he wants to instill in his patients.

"You're going to have fewer of those hard days as time goes on, and it's going to be OK, even though it doesn't seem like it right now," Dr. Gayken said.

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