From the heart

Hezekiah O’Neal works toward a career in cardiovascular medicine.

There are few people who know the complexities of the heart better than Hezekiah O’Neal. As a junior exercise science major with minors in chemistry and biology intent on a career in cardiovascular surgery, the heart is a subject that is central to his education. As a son, his mother’s own heart – and her struggles with cardiovascular disease – strengthened his resolve to help those in similar situations. And as a human being, O’Neal understands what it means to have heart: in his role as an orientation leader, he helps freshman students make the transition to a rigorous university environment. The common thread, he says, is clear.

“I have to be helping people and knowing that I’m making a difference in their lives,” O’Neal says. “That’s my calling.”

The path to medical school

According to O’Neal, his decision to focus on the heart was solidified by his experiences as an undergraduate student. His anatomy course with Robert Kellar, an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, had the biggest impact on him: it was the class, O’Neal says, that led to his decision to specialize in cardiovascular surgery.

“Dr. Kellar talked a lot about the heart and the cardiovascular system, and for some reason, that system made the most sense for me,” O’Neal says. “He’s growing a piece of heart tissue with chemicals, and in labs, you get to apply what you just learned in that actual physical model.  So you’re actually learning visually and kinesthetically, and you’re constantly interacting with whatever you’re talking about in class.”

O’Neal’s learning isn’t limited to the classroom. As a lab assistant in the university’s Anatomy and Physiology Lab, he has multiple opportunities to apply academic concepts to the work he does on a day-to-day basis. In the lab, O’Neal uses state-of-the-art microscopes to study and dissect organs, which allows him to build critical knowledge about the heart. Doing so allows him to advance his knowledge about the symptoms associated with different heart ailments and how to treat them. For O’Neal, looking toward a career in medicine, this is of paramount importance.

“A lot of medical schools and physical therapy schools look for students who have had research opportunities, and the fact that I can do that now at such an early stage is excellent,” he says. “You really get to apply all of the tools that you’ll use in your career.”

Inspiration along the journey

O’Neal’s drive to help others has many points of inspiration, and takes several forms. His mother Donna, for instance, has been afflicted with cardiovascular disease, which had a profound impact on his desire to make a difference.

“I want to help people going through those types of challenges,” O’Neal says. “I just feel like that’s where I need to be; it was destined to happen.”

O’Neal has also immersed himself into university life, and has thrived. He credits the Successful Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) Program with helping him to make a smooth transition to university life. As a student, he has sought to pay that assistance forward by serving as an orientation leader, where he partners with fellow students to help newcomers better understand the university environment. 

Eyes on the future

For now, O’Neal is researching various medical schools in order to understand which institution will best allow him to build on the research experience he has gained as an undergraduate.  Wherever he goes next, O’Neal says, he will be grateful for the knowledge and experience he gained in Flagstaff.

“I sometimes get the question, ‘Why do students go to Northern Arizona University if they want to go to medical school?’” O’Neal says. “I feel like my resumé really stands out because of the university and the experiences I’ve had.”