On Sept. 11, 2001 the United States was in nationwide panic. As the second plane hit the twin towers, Justin Tucek, was on an operating table undergoing his second open heart surgery as a three-year-old boy.
Tucek, senior history major is one in 10,000 born with Truncus arteriosus in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Instead of having a separate pulmonary artery and aorta, his heart has one large vessel. Without the open heart surgeries and the insertion of prosthetic valves, his skin would turn blue, his pulse would be low, and breathing would be nearly impossible.
Tucek is a basketball student assistant with an unconditional love for life, basketball and Emporia.
“From the first time I met him, I’ve always said he’s going to do really really well in life because he is willing to take on tasks, whatever they are, and he’s willing to do that with enthusiasm,” said Kristen Bayer, mother of the children Tucek babysits and deputy director of athletics. “With that combination, he’s definitely going to make it far.”
Despite undergoing five open-heart surgeries in his 21 years, Tucek is grateful for the cards he has been dealt. If anything, it has made him more appreciative for the life he does have.
He says everything should be done with passion and excitement because there is no way of knowing if each day could be the last.
“You’ll have bad days but then you’ve got to look at other things in life,” said Tucek. “I’m a history guy, so you have to look at things in other countries that don’t even have food or water but you failed a test. Coach says go get me a coffee, I don’t want to do it like yeah why not? It’s not a big deal.”
Although Justin’s mother, Michelle Burggraff, lives eight hours away in Justin’s home town of Hartford, South Dakota, she said she never has to worry about him. No matter how much she misses his smile, she knows with his personality and his positivity, he will be fine wherever he goes.
“He is Justin,” Burggraff said. “He is one of a kind.”
He describes one particular instance, when he remembers waking up from surgery with tubes down his throat. Rather than breaking down, his reaction was throwing his fist in the air. He knew he made it.
“Every time I go in, they tell you ‘Hey this could happen, this could happen,’” Tucek said. “I cherish every day with a smile, I make sure I’m happy and positive every day. Make connections with people, make friends because I’m not guaranteed for tomorrow. So out of everything in life from basketball to school life is the most important thing because you only get one life so why not make it the most?”