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McCarthy Award Winner

One Student's Path to Medical School

May 19, 2009

By Russ L. Hudson

Thomas “TJ” Buretta, who completes his post-baccalaureate work at Cal State Fullerton this month, won the coveted Miles D. McCarthy Health Professions Award for academic achievement, integrity and commitment to serve humanity.

While maintaining a 4.0 grade point average and researching neuro-degenerative diseases in the lab of Sandra Banack, professor of biological science, Buretta served as vice president of the Student Health Professions Association for two years, was a Freshman Programs peer mentor, a discussion leader for biology classes, and volunteered more than 450 hours with two local hospices.

In 2006, he won the prestigious Kenneth L. Goodhue-McWilliams Award for Outstanding Community Service in the Health Professions.

Community service is important to Buretta, who has worked as a health care volunteer through Homeless Health Care for Los Angeles, Skid Row Hospitality Clinic, Flying Samaritans, Liga: The Flying Doctors of Mercy, Students for International Missions Service, Los Angeles County Hospital and the California Hispanic Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

“Receiving this award was such a surprise. I was asked to turn in a sort of autobiography of my academic and service work, but there were so many good students doing the same it didn’t occur to me that I would get the award,” Buretta said.

An odd chain of events led Buretta, who holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication from Pepperdine University, to UC Irvine School of Medicine, where he will start next fall.

“In my senior year at Pepperdine, I had a summer job in the university’s student health center. I sat there all day and shredded paper — old medical records, things like that. I wasn’t allowed in the back office, where the medicine was practiced, and I wanted to see what they did.

“I earned a Back Office Medical Assistant and Phlebotomy Certification from Conejo Valley Adult Education, which allowed me to be in the back office. I got to see the doctors at work, helping people,” said Buretta, a Long Beach resident. “I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”

He entered Cal State Fullerton in 2003 and had to take several science courses to get up to speed. “I’m 28 years old now, that’s older than most going into medical school. But I had to be sure this is what I wanted. I came from a communications educational background. Very different. I had to make sure I could handle biology, for example, before I could know if I liked medicine.”

But it was easy in some ways, the McCarthy winner said. “When you go into pre-med, you ‘have to’ do some volunteering, some community service. From the beginning, for me it wasn’t ‘have to,’ it was ‘get to.’ It was some of the best parts of what I did, and I intend to continue. I will go on more international missions as a doctor, and I will continue to help those on Skid Row. But next time, I will be the one making the decisions and helping them directly.”

Miles D. McCarthy Health Professions Award

The award is named for the late founding faculty member who was the architect of the university’s acclaimed Health Professions Program. It’s presented annually to the outstanding health professions student who demonstrates high academic achievement and integrity, as well as a commitment to serve humanity.

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