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A Father, a Son and a Joint Graduation

Timothy and David Calhoun smile in cap and gown

Timothy Calhoun and his son David will both graduate this May with degrees from the joint department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at NC State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Here’s your headline,” Tim said. “’Dead guy goes to school because of his son.’”

That’s not the whole story,” David said.

A Remarkable Occurrence

From the age of 3, David told anyone who would listen that he was going to UNC-Chapel Hill to become a doctor.“I come from a family of over-achievers,” he said. His mother, Linda Calhoun, is a cardiologist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, NC. At the time, Tim was a pharmaceutical executive with a career history that included financial analyst and flight test engineer.

Two days after Tim’s 42nd birthday, he suffered sudden cardiac death in his sleep. “My wife’s asleep in bed next to me, and she wakes up — for whatever reason — and realizes that something is wrong.”

Linda immediately began CPR, called paramedics and also called her neighbor, who is a nurse. They took turns performing chest compressions until an ambulance arrived. It took emergency respondents seven shocks with a defibrillator to get Tim’s heart into a life-sustaining rhythm. He arrived at the hospital in a coma that lasted for days.

“I slept right through it,” said David, who was seven years old at the time of his father’s cardiac episode. “I don’t remember if they told me the next day that my father had died. I do remember I had piano practice.”

The Road Back

Tim’s recovery was surprising. “You have to look at the prognoses of people who have sudden cardiac death. My situation is not normal.” He remains amazed at his luck. “A coma is basically a last ditch effort for your brain to save itself. I went back to work a month later and still remembered my password to get into my computer.”

Still, Tim suffered some cognitive setbacks. “I would type something and could have sworn it made perfect sense, but when I went back to read it, words would be missing. I wasn’t able to do calculations in my head like I used to.”

Tim’s symptoms were still present just four years ago, when it was time for David to go to college.

Off to School

David still had his heart set on becoming a doctor until his freshman orientation at UNC Chapel Hill. We were going around to different departments hearing what people had to say, and when I got to BME they said all the wrong things. ‘Your GPA will suffer, you’ll have no social life, say goodbye to free time.’ I basically thought, ‘Sign me up.’

Imagine my surprise, Tim said.My son wants to do something the hard way.

Inspired by David, Tim researched the BME program and discovered a kindred interest. He started with classes at a community college to make sure he was ready, then transferred into the BME program at NC State. “I needed to do something exceedingly difficult to get my brain back, and it’s absolutely done that for me. I would say I’m back to normal.”

“Whatever that is,” said David.

Timothy and David Calhoun look at a prosthetic hand in the Helping Hand Project lab.

The program is notoriously challenging. Both Calhouns are living on their respective campuses, and often spend all weekend in the lab.My mom will visit us on the weekends when she’s not working, said David.This is just a 24-7 program.

Other shared experiences include the Helping Hand Project, which uses 3D printers to make prosthetic hands for children. The two have even shared professors and classes, though not the same section.I think the professors are nicer to the UNC kids, Tim said.

You really have to buckle down and do the work, said David. He spread his fingers on the table as though on a piano keyboard.It’s like music. When I’m finally able to commit the notes to memory, I feel so accomplished, he said.

The Next Chapter

Now the job hunt begins. Tim and David have swapped war stories from the interview process. Both are open to relocating for the right opportunity, though David would like to stay in North Carolina.

Tim is passionate about lifesaving devices and the renewed future they can offer patients like himself. “I have an ICD (internal cardio defibrillator) inside me now. It’s never fired, and I hope it never will. But it’s there if I need it.”

David shared a different perspective. “I’m less about coming up with novel devices than I am about quality engineering. I just want to make sure everything runs smoothly.”

Both father and son will graduate at a joint ceremony at the Carolina Theater, in an auditorium filled with red and blue gowns. Linda will be in the audience.

Want to know what’s cool? David’s sitting in front of me, said Tim.Even on that day, I’ll still be following in his footsteps.