Toyokazu “Chris” Endo, the president of what will be the first UNLV School of Medicine graduating class in 2021, was just 10-years-old and living in Germany when he saw a woman with disabilities crying and begging for help while holding her child in her arms.
“There was a powerful urge in me to help, yet I just walked right by her thinking someone else would step in. It haunts me to this day that I did nothing,” the native Las Vegan recalled. “From that day forward, I have made conscious decisions to step in when the opportunities have presented themselves.”
As the student council president at Durango High School, where he also was valedictorian, he led food and clothing drives for the less fortunate. He also tutored. As an undergraduate at Duke University, he took EMT courses at the university and then went on to become a paramedic, taking classes at night at a community college. When he wasn’t attending Duke basketball games or studying — the biology major graduated with honors — he was providing life-saving emergency interventions in a rural community adjacent to the university. He continued the paramedic work in Las Vegas until the early demands of medical school wouldn’t allow it.
“Service is in my nature,” said Endo, who recently took another part-time job with an ambulance company as a paramedic. “I was really missing treating patients, serving my community.”
How Endo, who plans on becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, got to this place and time was full of twists and turns.
As a child, moving was the norm for his parents. His father, a Japanese business executive, would take assignments in four different countries before Endo was 12. His mother, a native of Korea, took care of Endo and his younger brother.
“I was born in Las Vegas when my mother was visiting her side of the family here,” Endo said. “I spoke Korean and Japanese growing up, and I started to learn English while attending a traditional British school system. Yes, I used to have a British accent. We lived in England for eight years and again my father got promoted and we relocated to Germany for three years where I attended the international school in English.
“Then he was promoted again and we all moved back to Japan. I ended up living there for two years before telling my parents I was unhappy there. Until then all my education had been in English. I convinced my parents that I belonged in the U.S. in order for me to pursue my education in English. It was the best decision I’ve ever made despite having to be away from my parents. I didn’t want to move around constantly (his father later would be transferred to Malaysia, China, Italy, and Ohio), and I decided to stay here in Vegas with my aunt and grandma; they became my legal guardians.”
Soon after Endo moved to Las Vegas where he first attended Sawyer Middle School, his aunt gave him the nickname “Chris.”
“I’m asked all the time how I got ‘Chris’ out of Toyokazu,” Endo laughed. “It has nothing to do with my name. My aunt just thought it would be easier for everyone to handle.”
Endo said that as long as he can remember, he’s enjoyed math and science. “In high school, I was particularly interested in physics. I actually applied to college as a mechanical engineering major because I wanted to make sense of the world and use the understanding to make something new, but it was missing a component that was deeply rooted within me: Service. I loved science and I loved to serve, and naturally a career in health care came into my mind. My freshman year of college, they were offering the EMT class on campus so I used it as an opportunity to get a sense of what it’s like to work in health care. After obtaining my EMT certification, I decided to change my major to biology. I decided to go to medical school.”
Accepted at both the Duke and UNLV School of Medicine, Endo said he chose UNLV because he “wanted to be part of change that will leave an everlasting impact in my own community.”
In 2017, the year the school opened, he first ran successfully for class president, a position he has won in subsequent elections. “I wanted to bring out the concerns of students, whether we’re talking about clinical rotations, adding components to lectures, adding new equipment for the library, gaining quiet study space, improving the gym, adding a school psychologist, or making sure we have events on campus. The beauty of a brand-new school is that the administrators really listen to you. I built a good relationship with administrators to talk about issues.”
COVID-19, he said, has been particularly frustrating for students. “It’s severely limited clinical experience. It’s been a frustrating situation for everybody.”
Earlier clinical experiences with community physicians, he said, made him want to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, a medical doctor who specializes in surgical procedures of the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest.
“The first cardiac surgery I witnessed was an aortic arch repair on a newborn. The meticulous nature it required to manipulate both physiology and anatomy to provide life-saving intervention, and the smooth orchestration of teamwork, left me in awe,” Endo said. “They were able to save the little girl’s life and allow her to live her life to the fullest.
"I’ve always had an interest in the human heart and I think it’s because of the inner engineer within me. I love the mechanics that are involved for the heart to function and I find it extremely fascinating how one organ can affect so much of how we live day to day. I found an adult cardiothoracic surgeon that allowed me to assist in the operating room. That day that I was able to hold a beating human heart in my own hands, my interest turned into determination…I knew I was meant to be a cardiothoracic surgeon.”
Because there is no integrated cardiothoracic surgery residency in Nevada, Endo is applying for residencies out of state. But he plans to return after his six to eight years of training.
“I love this city and the people. I envision a future where I am on the faculty at the UNLV School of Medicine, working in a department of cardiothoracic surgery providing life-saving interventions to people, where doctors come for their cardiothoracic training.”