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Living With Purpose: The Mike Burke Story

Learn How Mike Burke, Living With A Life-Threatening Illness, Has Overcome His Challenges and How You Can Overcome Yours

by Ron Ameln

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…

This was the daily routine for Mike Burke when he was a child. He would sit on his father’s lap three times a day, and his father, Jack Burke, would tap on Mike’s sides, almost as if he were playing the bongo drums. No matter what was going on in his life, Jack would be there for his young son, each and every day. Jack was diligent with the tap treatments. The treatments lasted about 15 minutes each, and they were keeping his son alive.

Mike was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 14 months old. His parents, Jack and Pat Burke, were told that their son would maybe live to be 5 years old. Cystic fibrosis is a disease that cripples the lungs and digestive system. The body of a cystic fibrosis patient uses salt and water poorly, and thick mucus accumulates inside the lungs and the digestive tract. The mucus becomes a breeding ground for serious infections. Infections that can easily kill a cystic fibrosis patient.

The tap treatments were a way of loosening the mucus in the airway so it could be coughed out, hopefully keeping the infections at bay.

If you were diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in 1959, the median age of survival was 6 months, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. In the 1980s, survival was 8 years. Today, survival averages 37.4 years.

Fast-forward 43 years. Now 44, Mike is the owner of a St. Charles-based company, Marathon Virtual Assistant. Marathon provides business support services to area businesses. Mike recently wrote the book “Waiting to Die, Running to Live,” which chronicles his journey living with a terminal illness and how his hobby, running, has helped him cope. He’s now sharing his story and helping other cystic fibrosis patients, his clients and everyone learning to overcome their challenges.

As a child, Mike never thought about his illness or his life expectancy. He played baseball and soccer just like his friends and brothers. When he reached high school, however, things started to get more real.

“When I was 16 I started to realize how serious this was,” Mike says. “I just went into an apathetic mode. Coming into your teenage years, you get a big dose of what your future will look like.”

In fact, Mike told his father he was not going to attend college. What was the point of college, Mike asked his father – he’d be dead soon anyway. Same with his career. “Why really bother focusing on anything?” Mike said. “Any time big decisions would come, I would see decisions through the lense of ‘You only have two years left to live.’

“Growing up, it seemed like I was always chasing life expectancy,” Mike says. “Seeing life expectancy always there and seeing it drive my decisions was not always a good thing.  Death is not a very good motivator.”

After college Mike did end up with a successful job. He became the youngest director of sales at Omni Hotels and traveled across the country. He finally settled in Colorado, but something was missing. He felt isolated and worried about his illness and prognosis.

“I had a lot of fears and apprehensions,” he says. “I lived every day thinking I had only a few years to go. I didn’t want to be a burden for anyone.”

Things changed when he turned 30 in 2000. He was asked to be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for the disease. To prepare for the speech, he started researching cystic fibrosis. It was then that he realized life expectancy was 28 (at the time). He could quickly do the math.  
“For the first time in my life, I was on the other side of life expectancy. It hit me, ‘Oh my god, I’ve wasted years thinking negatively.’ I was running away. It was time to start planning to live rather than plan to die. I decided I wouldn’t let this control my life any longer. I thought, ‘You have wasted a lot of energy and worry over something that never happened.’ All of those decisions, internal angst, just didn’t happen.

“I was determined that I was never going to think like that again. I was supposed to be dead. I knew I couldn’t live like that anymore. I knew I needed to start thinking differently. I don’t even know what life expectancy is today. I don’t keep up with it.”

He quit his job and moved back to St. Charles. He knew he needed to change the way he thought about his life. That’s when he began running.

At first, running was extremely difficult. He was running at a lung capacity of 80%, and he would start coughing and vomiting along the way. Slowly, running became easier.

He was soon addicted to the sport. One half-marathon led to a full marathon, which led to an Ironman triathlon. All in all, he has run 20 half-marathons and nine full marathons.

Though he began running for fellowship and to clear his mind, he started to see immediate physical benefits. His lung capacity stabilized and then actually improved.

He also shifted gears with his career, starting Marathon Virtual Assistant. Marathon takes care of traditional administrative services for area companies – tasks such as preparing proposals, creating PowerPoint presentations, doing essential bookkeeping, maintaining schedules, managing emails and generating newsletters. He got the idea for the business while working as an assistant in a professional service firm. He realized how stressed the office environment was and how assistants were needed.

“I realized that these professionals needed help but didn’t need full-time help,” Mike says. “So they ended up doing all the filing, returning phone calls, processing paperwork, etc., themselves.  All of these tasks were keeping them from doing what was actually getting them paid.  

“I saw owners miss the birth of their children because they had so much work to do. I saw them getting sick, getting out of shape. I help solve these problems for them so they don’t miss their family life, they don’t miss their health and they don’t miss life.”  

With his passion for running, his company and reaching out to others with his story, Mike is now living a purposeful life.

“If people don’t see a purpose in life, they can’t live with purpose,” he said.  

His story has become an inspiration to those around him. Take, for example, friend and fellow entrepreneur Art Snarzyk, owner of InnerView Advisors.

“It is my job, my calling, to help people find their purpose and passion and to inspire them to follow it,” Snarzyk says. “Mike is one of the people who provide that to me. Mike and his story inspire me. He makes me focus, knowing that I am fortunate to wake another day, to see my daughter and wife wake with me, and to push beyond challenges because my life could be much different. However, it is not through preaching, sympathetic appeal or an attempt to motivate; it comes from just witnessing him live his life in such an effortlessly purposeful and classy way.”

It is no surprise to Mike’s parents that he continues to thrive in life. Jack and Pat said they never focused on their son’s life expectancy. In fact, they never mentioned it to Mike’s older brothers.  “We raised Mike just like our other children,” Jack says. “Even after they told us he wouldn’t live to see kindergarten, we always had the assumption that he would live to be an old man.  That’s just the way we lived. That’s the way we raised him. He wasn’t going to be a victim.”

They maintained the same positive outlook about what Mike could accomplish in his life. “It doesn’t surprise us what he has accomplished,” says Pat. “He has always been motivated, and he has always been a hard worker. He’s a good man, and he’s now doing so much for young cystic fibrosis families.”

Mike is certainly not out of the woods when it comes to his health. One of his close friends, with the same mutation as Mike, recently died at age 28. Mike is a diabetic and takes 10,000 pills a year in addition to doing breathing treatments each day and taking antibiotics off and on through the year to avoid infections.

But despite all of that, Mike doesn’t stop long enough to think about his mortality. “When it comes to life expectancy, it’s how you take that life expectancy,” he says. “I have decided to embrace life, even with its challenges.”

Mike Burke’s Lessons for Overcoming Adversity
(in Life and in Business)


Cherish your life. Don’t let your business completely overtake everything. Work hard, but realize you can’t build anything yourself.  
Reach out for assistance. Reach out and get help and assistance from others. Illness has let me know I can’t do everything alone. If I work too much and get too stressed, I might get sick. I need others to help me build this business.
Be happy where you are at in life. Strive for more, but be happy where you are at. Learn to enjoy what you do have instead of looking at what you don’t have. Because I need to watch my health, I can’t grow my business as quickly as others might be able to do. I need to realize that and enjoy what I have built.
Find opportunity in the challenge. Find out where your opportunity is. After thinking my disease was a death sentence, I realized there was an opportunity to live better.  
Get in the fight. Run toward your challenges and adversity; don’t run from it.

Submitted 4 years 117 days ago
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