Fifth Place Writing – Features

Myah Ward

Fifth Place
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
$1,000 Scholarship

‘A miracle within itself’: UNC student’s passion for medicine goes back to her childhood

By Myah Ward

Grace Burud shoved deep into the middle-aged man’s chest. With each compression, she threw her full body into a firm, controlled motion.

She stared at the monitor’s green zone as beads of sweat gathered on her forehead. Was she pushing deep enough? She counted the fast but steady rhythm aloud, attempting to silence the chaos around her.

He was in cardiac arrest. Strangers filled his family’s living room in Charlotte. Grace could see his daughter screaming hysterically just steps away.

Was Grace even breathing herself? “One, two, three, four, five…” Her body flooded with adrenaline.

She looked across his body at the paramedic. Something about the pounding felt brutal to her, almost invasive.

She felt the eyes of his anxious daughter. Grace’s energy was draining, she needed a break.

“Hey, do you want to take over?” Grace asked the paramedic.

Saving lives is what Grace wants to do — what those who know her say she was made to do. She’s a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore studying biology and psychology to become an oncologist, but she knows how far away this is, and she’s impatient. Being an emergency medical technician is one way she can help people now — help people escape the pain she felt 10 years ago.

Grace switched to her position bagging — breathing for the man whose heart had stopped beating.

‘I love the smell of hospitals’

Grace’s mom laughed as she helped her fourth-grader pull a skull cap over her hair. Grace pulled her arms through the sleeves of the oversized doctor coat and put a stethoscope around her neck.

Grace went to school that day dressed as a graying, bald man for hero day. While other kids dressed as historical figures or their parents, she dressed as her dad’s oncologist.

Her dad Mark Burud was diagnosed when he was 22 years old, a senior in college at Ferris State University in Michigan. He married his high school sweetheart and walked into marriage with a disease that kills 95 percent of patients within three years. Epithelioid sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer, started in his arm and would spread to his lungs.

Some years were better than others for Mark. Sometimes he had a year with no complications, but other years, the cancer would be back and more aggressive.

Most days, Mark went to his job at Target as a general manager in Gastonia. He didn’t complain about the treatments, or the way they made him feel. Most people couldn’t tell he had a rare cancer — one that Duke Hospital had only seen three cases of in 30 years.

“Mark, you shaved your head, you going for a new look?” a neighbor once asked him at a neighborhood party. His wife Gretchen said he loved moments like these, moments when someone didn’t know he was sick with a cancer that was slowly destroying him.

With frequent treatments, the Buruds brought their kids along to Duke. Grace loved the trip to Durham. She always got chicken nuggets and an orange Hi-C juice at McDonald’s on the drive up.

She’d walk through the hospital doors to visit her dad. Her mom remembers one morning when Grace walked inside and loudly inhaled a big breath of air.

“Aaaah, I love the smell of hospitals,” she said.

“You’re weird, kid,” her mother said with a laugh.

Grace and her brother played with latex gloves in the waiting room, blowing them up as big as they could. When doctors came in to speak to their dad, Grace stopped and stared with curious, wide eyes.

For Grace, the hospital was the place that made her dad better. Sometimes Mark had to stay longer, but she didn’t mind. She’d crawl into the bed, steal his hospital socks and put them on her feet instead.

“She didn’t see it as scary because her dad always came home,” her mom said.

And on the days he was home, Grace was his ‘doctor.’ The 5-year-old cleaned her dad’s wounds and changed his dressings. She even wore her own Ace bandage on her leg just because she liked the way it looked.

Maybe also because she wanted to be like her dad.

‘Wrapped around her finger’

Grace was a miracle baby, and that’s where she gets her name.

After years of treatment, Mark’s doctor told him it would be difficult to have another kid. When the Buruds found out they were pregnant with Grace, they saw it as a gift from God.

“She had him wrapped around her finger from the time she showed up,” Gretchen said.

And she was a daddy’s girl. Gretchen used to joke with him that he loved Grace more than her. Married 20 years, he’d only danced with his wife twice in their lives, once at prom and once at their wedding.

But when Grace took him to her elementary school’s daddy-daughter dance, he danced with her all night long.

Grace still likes to tell stories like these about him, not to strangers, but sometimes she’ll talk about him to her close friends.

“I remember her telling me that she never knew her dad without cancer,” her friend Taylor Buck said.

But it’s almost like she never really knew him with it.

“Just the person he was, I was surprised,” Grace said. “He was always so jokey and sarcastic and funny — and really loving. I think none of us noticed he was sick.”

Grace can’t pinpoint the day she knew she wanted to be an oncologist, but she knows it goes back to watching the doctors in the hospital.

It goes back to her dad.

Gretchen thinks it goes back to a day in the mountains when Grace disappeared for a few hours. Mark found his 5-year-old buried in her great uncle’s anatomy book, diligently drawing the anatomy of a hand.

Gretchen remembers how Mark just watched her hunkered over the old book. He was soaking in one of those moments when a parent can’t quite believe this tiny human is theirs.

“Grace, you’re going to be a doctor someday,” he said.

But it also goes back to Grace wanting to save people from experiencing what she has.

“If she can prevent one little girl from losing her dad, then it will all be worth it for her,” her mom said.

‘A miracle within itself’

She remembers the date, and she remembers exactly what she wore.

Aug. 25, 2008, was Grace’s first day of fourth grade.

She wore a navy Abercrombie T-shirt with her favorite white and blue plaid Bermuda shorts. She wore her light blue wire rim glasses.

It was raining out, and Grace sat in her music class when her name was called over the musty trailer’s intercom. “Yes,” she thought to herself. “Early pick up.” The other kids stared as she stood up from her squeaky chair.

But why would her mom be here on the first day?

When she walked through the office, the secretary — who usually greeted students with a smile — looked pained. Grace scanned the room and saw her mom’s black handbag lying in a corner.

She walked into the assistant principal’s office and met her mother.

“The warm twinkly brown eyes that welcomed me home were gone, washed away by the merciless storm,” Grace wrote in an essay years later. “The world had flipped upside down, and she didn’t know what to do about it.”

Gretchen’s face was tired and distressed, her makeup was smeared. She told Grace that her dad was gone.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Grace said.

Her chest tightened until air came out in gasps.

Later, Grace would learn her dad’s lung collapsed while he was at home. He called 911, but he didn’t have the air needed to form words. The responders didn’t know what was wrong.

When they arrived and busted down the front door, he was already gone.

Mark outlived his prognosis by 15 years. But even now, the nine years Grace had him feels like a lifetime.

“Sometimes people pray for miracles of healing, but living without fear that he was dying was a miracle within itself,” Grace said.

When Grace walked out the door for school that day, she gave her dad a hug and said her last words to him.

“I love you.”

‘This isn’t worse than chemo’

Last summer, Grace was called a hero.

With no hesitation and only a few months of training, she signed up to run across the country. It goes back to being impatient, wanting to do something now.

The thought of medical school can be overwhelming, but Grace doesn’t want to stop. Sometimes she wonders if medicine is for her, especially when she has days like the one in Charlotte where she couldn’t make the middle-aged man’s heart start beating.

And she knows why his daughter stood out to her that day, why she still thinks about her even now. Grace knew the girl, only in her early twenties, would forever be like her.

But then, she takes a deep breath and remembers why she does it.

“Just got to keep on going,” Grace tells herself. “You have other people to help.”

Gretchen finds her daughter’s determination inspiring. But she still she sits up at night, imagining her tiny-framed daughter riding through the streets of Chapel Hill to an emergency. Grace has been doing it since high school, but for her mom, the worry doesn’t fade.

“She looks like a 14-year-old,” Gretchen said as she described Grace’s youthful face. No matter how young she still sees her now 19-year-old, she knows she can’t hold her back. And last summer, she had no choice but to let her go.

With 20 team members, Grace ran from San Francisco to New York for the 4K For Cancer. For 49 days, Grace ran eight to 16 miles a day in the heat of summer.

Grace dedicated her run to her dad, and to other survivors she met along the way. She raised $8,410 for the Ulman Cancer Fund, making her the top fundraiser for Team New York. Her team raised $135,000, adding to the total of over $900,000 raised for young adults with cancer in summer 2018.

The runners slept on the floors of churches and schools, saving as much money as they could for the donation. Grace’s favorite part was visiting the hospitals and meeting patients and oncologists.

In Omaha, she met a breast cancer survivor who talked about winning one battle and training for another. The survivor wanted to run a 5K, she told Grace, but she had never run in her life. Whenever training got tough, she would tell herself, “this isn’t worse than chemo.”

That became Grace’s mantra. Each day, she grabbed a Sharpie and wrote the names of survivors — and those who had lost their battles — on the front and back of her legs.

Patients and doctors told her how inspiring she was, but she brushed it off and reminded them of the true inspiration — people like her dad.

Grace ran through the heat of the Craig, Colorado. She remembers the endless sky and a big hill she didn’t think she could beat. It was 95 degrees and she was 8 miles in. It was her final stretch, but she was tired and hungry. Her body began to slow as the road began to rise.

The beads of sweat dripped down her face and trickled down her tired legs. She looked down and saw the smeared names on her thighs.

“You can’t stop, you’re not doing this for yourself,” she whispered.

She looked up and kept running.


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