David Hardy always secretly wanted to become a doctor. He just never thought he had what it took.
Growing up in a family of six in rural Wilkes County, GA., the Georgia Regents University 2013 Resident of the Year wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life at all, in fact.
Then Hardy landed in a health occupations class his senior year at Washington-Wilkes Comprehensive High School.
"I found it really interesting and thought, ‘I could do this,'" he says. "My brothers and two of my sisters went to nursing school, so I set my sights on that. They told me all I had to do was two years at (the former) Augusta State University and then two years at (the former) Medical College and Georgia and then I'd be done. Sounded good to me."
Hardy moved to Augusta and attended GRU's Summerville Campus in 1997. He earned a HOPE Scholarship, which paid for tuition, but didn't have enough money for a place to live.
"I slept in my car for six months," he says. "I was taking anatomy and physiology and loved it. I was lucky enough to land a job as a teaching assistant for Dr. (Richard) Griner. I had keys to the lab, so I could sleep there at night if it was too cold or something."
Griner helped Hardy with more than temporary shelter when he needed it. "He saw something in me and really invested in me. He encouraged me not to sell myself short and to chase my dream of going to medical school. That was a real tipping point for me. I probably owe a lot of where I am today to him."
Eventually moving into a house with seven roommates, Hardy set about making it to medical school. He paid bills by working three part-time jobs – as a teaching assistant, a barista, and as a research assistant for a vascular surgeon.
"I had the opportunity to see some surgeries and that was it," Hardy says. "I knew then I wanted to be a doctor. I knew what I wanted and nothing was going to stop me."
He graduated summa cum laude from GRU in 2001 and began applying to the Medical College of Georgia. It was the only place he applied to medical school – the only place for him, he says.
He was rejected three times.
"I started working as a research assistant with (GRU Cell Physiologist) Wendy Bollag and got some research work under my belt," he says. "She never stopped believing in me and I was persistent. On my fourth application to medical school, I got accepted."
Throughout his clinical rotations during medical school, he liked several specialties. He thought about cardiology…maybe neurology…but then, his decision was made for him in the middle of the night. "I was on my surgery rotation and I got to assist on a perforated bowel repair," Hardy says. "We got out of surgery around 2 or 3 a.m. and I remember thinking ‘Man, this is it.' There was no one there to thank us for some of the hardest work I'd ever done, but it was so incredibly self-fulfilling."
He graduated medical school in 2007 and began a general surgery residency at Georgia Regents Medical Center that July.
And then the rug was ripped out from under him.
During his first year, his daughter, barely one-year-old was diagnosed with Rasmussen's encephalitis, a rare neurological disorder that causes seizures, loss of motor skills and brain swelling. The treatment? Remove half of her brain.
"I was working during the day and sleeping with her in the pediatric intensive care unit at night," Hardy said. "I was on the other side of things – I went from being the doctor who was trying to comfort his patients to being the one who needed comforting. She recovered, but I try to never forget that experience when I'm treating patients. I hope it makes me a better doctor."
It does, according to Dr. James Wynn, GRU Mason Distinguished Chair in Transplant Surgery and Immunology. Wynn paid him the ultimate physician's compliment in his Resident of the Year nomination letter to the MCG Office of Graduate Medical Education, who facilitates the Resident of the Year competition.
"David has become an excellent clinical surgeon and I would entrust my family's care to him without hesitation," Wynn wrote. "I know of no other resident so deserving of recognition."
Hardy will begin a two-year fellowship in vascular surgery at the renowned Cleveland Clinic in July.
"This is like a dream to me," he says. "To go from not thinking I had what it took to being Resident of the Year. This is so undeserved. I'm just a regular guy."
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