Grateful patient gives professorship to the doctor who fixed his heart
When Travis Burt felt intense pain shoot down his left arm and an acrid taste fill his mouth, he knew something was wrong. His normally tanned face became deeply flushed and the unbelievable pain continued for nearly an hour.
He alerted his wife, Cassie, that something in his body was amiss. Though they didn’t rush to the hospital that night, they saw nine doctors in the next five days, searching for answers.
Their search led them to Dr. Mark Williams, a cardiothoracic surgeon and a professor at the East Carolina Heart Institute at East Carolina University. He told Burt that he’d had a heart event, and performed a catherization procedure that revealed an artery in Burt’s heart was 95 percent blocked. Another was 65 percent blocked.
“When people have these levels of blockages and one closes completely, occasionally that can cause people to die suddenly, or at least make it very difficult to do their daily activities,” Williams said. He recommended a triple bypass surgery.
Travis and Cassie Burt of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, both attended ECU but left early to pursue work opportunities. Travis worked for UPS for 23 years, and then he and his business partner, Keith Byrd, started a shipping logistics company called Transportation Impact in 2008. They kept the company headquartered in Emerald Isle, balancing work life with ocean views. Soon, business was booming and the company grew rapidly, making its first million dollars in 2011. But two years later, Burt’s heart sidelined him.
Williams has worked and taught at the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU since 1986. He completed his cardiac training at Duke, and came to Greenville to work with Dr. Randolph Chitwood, the founder and former head of ECHI as well as the first heart surgeon in the country to perform robot-assisted heart valve surgery. Williams, in his own right, has performed more than 6,000 open-heart surgeries.
By word of mouth, Burt heard of Williams’ reputation and work with Chitwood. “That was the only phone call I needed to make,” he said.
Burt saw Williams at the East Carolina Heart Institute in Greenville on a Tuesday in 2013. Two days later he was in surgery.
“The idea of open-heart surgery of course scared me to death,” Cassie Burt said. She didn’t know how she would manage without her husband, the love of her life and the father of her children. “But the day of the surgery, there was almost a calm, because it was Dr. Williams,” she said.
Williams kept her updated throughout the procedure, and after it was over, he came out of the operating room and told her everything had gone well, exactly as planned.
“Dr. Williams was so reassuring. There are not enough words that I can say – he treats people the way he would treat his own family,” Cassie Burt said. Instead of words, the Burts decided to thank Williams for his work and his commitment to his patients by creating a professorship.
The Travis and Cassandra Burt Professorship in Cardiovascular Sciences was awarded at a ceremony on Jan. 23 in Greenville. Williams is the first recipient.
“To be in a position to recognize him means a lot to us,” Travis Burt said.
“One thing I’d like to see come out of it is for Dr. Williams to pass along his dedication … so that there’s another Dr. Williams for someone 20 years down the road,” Cassie Burt added.
For Williams, the professorship is certainly gratifying, but not as gratifying as seeing his patient healthy.
“Travis is an example of how rewarding it can be to do an intervention and allow someone to get back to living life again. I’m honored that Travis and Cassie have decided to create this professorship,” he said.
These days, Burt has a clean bill of health and is back to co-running Transportation Impact. Last year, the company was named Small Business of the Year by Business North Carolina. And he and Cassie are expecting their first grandchild in June. He’s grateful to be around for such joys.
“I can’t put into words what the surgery meant to me. It was a big curveball,” he said. “None of the success of our business would have been possible without this heart in my chest.”