With Professor Sharon Laing's guidance, UW Tacoma student Lucas Bjorkheim is realizing his dream of becoming a doctor.
Lucas Bjorkheim remembers always having what he calls a “weak stomach.” It bothered him and made his life a little less comfortable. Little did he know that what he was experiencing would lead to a medical crisis that ultimately impacted what he would choose to do with his life, and would eventually lead him to UW Tacoma.
Diagnosed in 2021 with a Helicobacter pylori (h. pylori) bacterial infection in the stomach, Bjorkheim got very ill. “I ended up with internal bleeding, I was incredibly sick,” he said. “It tore through my stomach lining. I bled internally all day at work. By the time I got to the emergency room, I was pretty much in a critical state.” Doctors told his parents that the tear caused a duodenal ulcer which resembled that of a stab or gunshot wound. He was given blood transfusions and had surgery to repair the damage, as well as a course of antibiotics.
The experience helped Bjorkheim choose a path. “Seeing the physician's response and how they took care of me, and how they urgently treated me during a time of need in a life and death situation, just solidified even more that I wanted to pursue medicine,” he said.
But Bjorkheim was also moved toward a medical career when he helped care for his grandfather, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. “It was really just sad to see his life deteriorate to where he was confined to a chair,” said Bjorkheim. He knew then that he wanted to find a way to help. “I think people go one of two ways; you either see something like that and it just depresses you, and of course upsets you, but you don't necessarily feel the drive to go out and make a difference,” he said. “I wanted to go into medicine and make a difference for people and provide immediate relief for them.”
Bjorkheim was living in Port Orchard and attending Olympic College. Once he made a decision to pursue medicine, he said UW was his only choice. “It's no secret that the University of Washington is world leading in healthcare,” said Bjorkheim. “So that was always kind of an interest to me once I finished up at Olympic College. When I knew that I wanted to pursue medicine and pursue surgery, I knew that going to UW would be the right choice.”
Bjorkheim knew he wanted to pursue medicine. He also knew he wanted a smaller campus environment, a chance to work closely with his professors and to collaborate more and to have hands-on experience. “I think at UW Tacoma, you can really get to know your instructors and get to know those around you much more,” he said.
One of Bjorkheim’s professors was Associate Professor Sharon Laing. “She could just tell I had an interest in the field,” he said. “We would have these long and deep conversations about chronic and acute diseases and how they progress and develop.”
Laing contacted Bjorkheim in the summer of 2019 and asked him to be involved directly with the research that she was doing. Bjorkheim took Laing’s invitation and began doing thematic data analysis. The research involved looking at responses from sixty women in the Pacific Northwest and asking them about their level of physical activity, how often they get the activity and what factors limit it for them. “Through that experience I learned about the process of teamwork, team building, and really being able to look at data and analyze data,” said Bjorkheim
Michael S. Mulligan, M.D. (left) with UW Tacoma student Lucas Bjorkheim. The photo is taken after surgery.
Bjorkheim (right) poses with Javad M. Ayat (left) and Maziar Khorsandi, M.D. (middle). Khorsandi is adult cardiothoracic surgeon at UW Medicine. Ayat is a clinical laboratory technician at Harborview Medical Center and an aspiring physician.
The work with Laing opened the door to another opportunity. Bjorkheim is currently involved with research into lung transplantation at UW in Seattle with Michael Mulligan, M.D., professor of cardiothoracic surgery and director of UW’s Lung Transplant Program.
While he does research and is affiliated with UW’s School of Medicine, Bjorkheim is still an undergraduate student and anticipates finishing his degree in biomedical sciences in the fall. “My research initiative with the department of surgery in Seattle is two years minimum,” he said. “I’m in my first year so I will continue that work until the summer of 2024, if not longer.”
Sometime during his second year of the research initiative, he will apply to UW’s School of Medicine to work on and obtain his M.D.. Bjorkheim is prepared for what comes next, and he said owes a lot to mentors like Laing and Mulligan. “It's just been an incredibly humbling thing to have so many people who see your interest for something and decide that they want to help,” he said. “Instead of telling you, ‘Hey, becoming a surgeon is out there, I'm not sure you can do it,’ it just feels like with Sharon and everybody else, I've always had people that are saying, ‘No, you can do it, but what are your steps and what's your plan? How are you going to get there?’"
For Bjorkheim, the steps were provided at UW Tacoma, and he can already see the path in front of him.
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