Holes – A Survivor’s College Essay

One year ago, Matthew Buff, a leukemia survivor, was fine-tuning his college applications. Today, he is a busy freshman at Emory University majoring in biology on a pre-med track. Matthew's personal goal is to become a pediatric oncologist focused on genetic research. The following is his college admissions essay. 

A round piece of silicone wrapped in a metal ring about the size of a quarter. If you tip it slightly, at just the right angle, where it catches the light, you would see hundreds of tiny holes covering the entirety of its surface. A miniature vacated battlefield of a war once won. It may not look like much to most people, but this tiny piece of plastic riddled with needle holes called a port or port-a-cath, helped to save my life and is now my visual inspiration to help others.

In the beginning, each hole could have easily represented another round of chemotherapy, spinal tap, blood transfusion, hospitalization, surgery or enrollment into a new study to treat my leukemia. They could also represent another day unable to attend school, each time being isolated from friends, and too many middle-of-the-night trips to the emergency room that would ultimately lead to another round of pokes, tests and abruptly waking to the beeping alarm of my IV pole early the next morning.

However, as my body has recuperated over the past five years since completing cancer treatment, the meaning of each hole has also transformed. Each hole now represents a lesson learned, a person met through my experience and the opportunity to make impactful change or people affected by catastrophic illness.

My parents and doctors have always encouraged me to not let my experience with cancer define me. I believe I have done a good job of incorporating that into my daily life, relationships and pursued interests. However, as I have matured and started to gain new experiences in life, I have chosen to reconnect with my past and allow it to acutely influence my perspective. I can’t help but to see the world from a slightly different angle than my peers after experiencing the delicateness and resiliency of life by age 12. I no longer view those years in and out of the hospital as negative, but a gift to help shape my abilities and sharpen my purpose.

From a very young age, I’ve learned to be an advocate for myself, to be an effective communicator, how to endure and thrive through challenges, become a capable and independent learner and find joy in contributing back to the community that surrounded me during my time of need. I want to now expand on those experiences and create new and meaningful relationships within the college environment that will continue to mold how I see the world and my future contributions within it.

I want to bravely explore other “holes” people have endured within their own lives, sit with them, and begin to find ways to alleviate their struggles through the commonalities of the human experience. If we can appreciate our differences, yet focus on what connects us, I believe there would be more peace in the world and fewer opportunities for any kind of pain and suffering. Empathy and compassion, in combination with technology and research, has the potential to redefine health and care. I intend for my experience and knowledge to be part of this progress.

My current objective is to build my college education with a concentration in biology and life sciences with the goal to become a research oncologist. Beyond my academic interest in those areas, I believe shifting my experiences from patient or receiver of care, to student of science with the intent to deliver care, will provide me the knowledge and holistic perspective to begin to develop the passion and endurance necessary to make a life-long commitment to healing through medicine.

We can’t always choose the experiences that shape us into who we are meant to be, but we can utilize them to empower ourselves, inspire each other and help others. Holes don’t have to be permanent; they can be the necessary foundation to begin to build something important and meaningful. We must be willing to excavate our own comfort, take risk, overcome challenges, plant new footings and create solutions to fill the gaps that are exposed in both our own lives, and in the lives of the people around us. Sometimes, if we look at things from a slightly different angle, like when the light reflects off my port, we can find new solutions to effectively and completely fill each new hole.

Written by Matthew Buff 
Matthew was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in March 2009. Now six years beyond treatment, he is a college student working towards his goal of becoming a pediatric oncologist focused on genetic research. 

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