Medical student buoyed others' spirits

CorrespondentFebruary 9, 2009 

— As a nurse who married a doctor, Martha Bernardo knows well the long hours and stress that accompany a career in medicine. So, when her second-oldest son, Michael, would tell her he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up, she would urge him to choose another path.

Eventually, he said to her, "Mommy, don't discourage me."

And so she stopped.

Michael Bernardo was a third-year student at Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine when he died in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic last month. He was 26.

An alumnus of Durham's Riverside High School, Bernardo graduated magna cum laude from N.C. State University with a degree in biology.

Going to a local school allowed him to visit his family in Durham often. His father died four years ago after battling a brain tumor for more than a decade. Michael and his older brother, Carlo, would take turns coming home from college on the weekends -- Michael from Raleigh and Carlo from Campbell University in Buies Creek -- to care for their father while their mother worked.

It strengthened the brothers' already firm bond.

"We were like a team, always trying to figure out how to help," Carlo says.

The Bernardo family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1990, moving to Durham so their father could be treated at Duke. Much of their extended family was already living in the United States, and Martha Bernardo says Michael loved being able to spend time with his cousins, uncles and aunts.

He had an infectious smile, his mother says, and a sense of humor that helped put people at ease.

In a photo of the family taken when Michael was in elementary school, the parents and Michael's siblings -- Carlo and younger sister Erika -- smile or look contemplatively at the camera. Not Michael. His dark eyes sparkle, and his mouth is wide open in an expression of exuberant joy. Carlo says the picture provides an example of his brother's fun-loving nature.

Fun-loving and philanthropic

Vicky Dang had been dating Michael for about two years. They were classmates at medical school. She says their courtship began as a friendship. After a few months, she realized that she was always with him, always looking forward to his phone calls and instant messages. "Mikey was extremely funny, outgoing and very charming," she says.

Their first kiss came while they were watching the movie "Amelie," which Dang says Bernardo dutifully sat through.

"It blossomed into the most beautiful relationship I've ever had," Dang says.

His mother says Michael's classmates told her that his encouragement often buoyed them through difficult days. If a big test was coming up, she says, Michael would energize the group to fit in a bit of skiing to offset the long hours of studying.

"He would always think of some way to do it -- to make things happen," she says.

But he also had a serious side, especially when it came to medicine. Part of his goal as a doctor, he told his mother, was to help people who could not afford health care.

After earning his undergraduate degree, Bernardo spent a year working with AmeriCorps to aid medically underserved people in Miami. At the time of his death, he was doing a medical rotation to help the poor in the Dominican Republic.

Family came first

Bernardo was serious about his dedication to his family, as well. His sister writes in a remembrance that her brother became a father figure after their father died.

"Though he was a busy individual, he would always have the time to spend with the family," Erika writes. "He kept us close by enabling us to do family things together. He constantly told me that above all, family comes first."

Carlo says that after spending years caring for their ailing father, he and Michael knew each other well enough to know what the other was thinking.

"He could just tell me what I needed to hear," Carlo says. "Half of me -- it feels like it's gone."

Martha Bernardo says the funeral home director told her he had never seen a crowd as large as the one gathered for her son's memorial service. Classmates from out of state and some who knew him as long ago as elementary school came to bid him farewell, she says.

"They remembered his smile, and they came."

Life Stories

amber@amberwrites.com

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