Speaker Spotlight: Heather Burnside

Burnside, Heather

Think of a person you’ve met who made you feel hopeful. Did that person share a particularly inspiring story? Or did they simply take the time to get to know you, to learn your struggles and joys while sharing their own? Heather Burnside does both, and has been able to inspire hope in thousands of patients through this unique combination.

In addition to raising a family and working as a volunteer coordinator, Heather also takes the time to speak at patient education events each month. While this adds to her already busy life, Heather loves taking on this role and feels fulfilled when she is able to connect with others looking to understand their illness. We asked Heather to share what she’s learned through her experiences as a patient speaker, and loved learning about her motivations and inspirations.

VPR POP: What do you think is special about a peer connection?

HB: There is something about being face-to-face with someone who has the same illness as you. To have someone trust you enough to let you know what’s going on in their world…that’s an amazing thing to me. I definitely feel that I have to put myself out there in order to reach the audience, but it is so rewarding when I am able to help someone who is struggling with the same things as me.

VPR POP: What made you want to become a patient speaker?

HB: I’ve worked as a patient advocate for a hospice, so I feel very comfortable speaking with others about healthcare-related issues. I also think back to when I was first diagnosed, and I truly believe that I would have benefited from talking with someone who had already been through the treatment I was considering. It feels good to know that I can alleviate any fear or uncertainty that others may be experiencing.

VPR POP: What’s it like presenting to a group of strangers? Are you ever nervous?

HB: I don’t get nervous, because I go into each program with a game plan. I arrive early and make sure to introduce myself to all attendees prior to my presentation: that way, by the time I take the podium, we’re no longer strangers. We’re friends.

VPR POP: After you had been doing presentations on your own for some time, you brought your husband Paul into the program to do a tandem presentation as a care partner team. What is it like presenting together?

HB: Amazing! We approach our life together as a team, and we approach my care as a team as well. The story is incomplete without Paul’s perspective, and with him there, the audience sees the whole picture.  I still enjoy the programs where I present alone, but I always prefer to have my husband there to share the caregiver perspective.

VPR POP: Tell us about a time you really felt like you made a difference as a patient speaker.

HB: I was speaking with Paul at a program in California. A woman in the audience became very emotional during our presentation, and I spoke with her after the program had finished. She told me she had been diagnosed a while ago, but had never really “come to terms” with her disease, or the steps she needed to take to take care of herself. She thanked me, and said I helped her understand that she needs to take those steps, and finally take control.

I don’t usually feel that I’m a particularly “inspiring” person. I’m just doing the best I can, and I feel that any inspiration Paul and I are able to give comes from focusing on the positive in our life together. Yes, I have a chronic illness, but there is still so much beauty to be found in my life. I know that this positivity helps me to live a full life, and I always try to inspire this positivity in others.


Thank you for all you do, Heather!


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