Heading for Harvard


They had planned to trek across the world, a couple of newlyweds from Southern California and their infant daughter. The Greek isle of Mykonos was as good a starting place as any. They didn’t need much money. He taught scuba diving; she was a manicurist.

But by their daughter’s first birthday, she hadn’t said a word--not even baby talk. She hadn’t taken a step, either. Her rattles held no interest. Six months later, nothing had changed.

Actually, everything had changed.

Joaquim Havens moved his family back to the United States, where they eventually learned that their daughter, Madison, has a rare genetic disorder that doctors have not been able to identify.

Madison’s condition soon became the driving force in Havens’ life, redirecting him from the life of a nomad to that of a scholar--a now single father who last week gained admission to Harvard University Medical School. He plans to study gene therapy in the hope of helping children like his daughter, who at age 9 has the mind of a toddler.

Recalling those first days back in California, Havens’ eyes redden. “It was devastating,” he said.


Daughter Diagnosed With Gene Disorder

Havens and his wife began a dizzying tour of Southern California doctors, often finding a gap between science and compassion.

“One doctor told us, ‘I can’t find anything wrong. You may not have an answer until the autopsy,’ ” he recalled.

Eventually, a geneticist concluded that Madison had a previously unknown genetic disorder and that she would never be able to take care of herself.

Havens had no college education, no insurance and few job prospects. For a while, he scrubbed barnacles off boat hulls for $150 a day. But runoff from El Nino storms polluted coastal waters, making it impossible for him to scrub boats safely.

Bills were mounting, along with marital tensions. So Havens joined the Navy reserve and then the SEALs to train as a medic, for steady income and benefits. But the rigors of the program took their toll, and Havens eventually dropped out. His marriage faltered shortly thereafter.

“That was the absolute rock bottom,” he said. His ex-wife now lives in Greece.

Eventually, Havens took a job as a patient-care assistant at Mattel-UCLA Children’s Hospital, where he worked 12 hours a day, four days a week with terminally ill children. The work was hard, but it made him feel useful, he said.

Working around so many medical professionals also inspired Havens to go back to school.

He enrolled full time at Pierce College, because he heard it had a good science department.

Worked Nights, Studied Days

He worked the night shift at the hospital and attended school during the day, sleeping only every other day. He quickly impressed his teachers.

“He was interested in a physician’s assistantship,” said Pierce biology professor Paul Meyers. “I flat-out told him he should be a physician. He was thinking about supporting his daughter, but I encouraged him to try for medical school.

“I consider him to be brilliant,” added Meyers, who has taught for 26 years and calls Havens his best student.

Pierce does not track students who leave California’s public colleges and universities, but several professors said they could not recall a graduate going on to an Ivy League school.

“We have a classroom full of students who want to go to medical school, and to have a student that many of them know get into the No. 1 medical school in the country is an inspiration,” said Martin Ikkanda, a Pierce biology professor.

Doctor Encouraged Interest in Genetics

At the hospital, Havens, 31, met Dr. Mirela Popa, a 33-year-old medical resident. They now live together in Marina del Rey and she will follow him to Massachusetts this summer.

One night, they went to a party at the home of Dr. Edward McCabe, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital and a nationally known gene therapy researcher. Havens recalls feeling self-conscious about his relative lack of education in a roomful of doctors, until McCabe started talking to him.

“We spoke about Madison; we spoke about my education and my goals,” Havens said. “He really took me in. I came away knowing that he was somehow going to play a factor in my life.”

A few months later, Havens graduated from Pierce and met with McCabe at UCLA, asking to be a lab assistant.

“We went through a series of projects,” McCabe said. “When I mentioned gene therapy, he brightened up. He lives with a disabled child, and I think he is driven, in part, by that.”

About that time, his daughter came to live with him full time. She goes to a special education school and day-care while he is at work.

Career in Gene Therapy Planned

Havens is working on a project that could lead to a method of repairing genetic disorders with mutated viruses--research on the cutting edge of a new and promising field, McCabe said.

He called Havens one of his finest students.

Next month, Havens plans to go to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on behalf of the Council on Undergraduate Research and present some of the potential benefits of gene therapy.

Gene therapy research has come under fire after revelations that some researchers violated National Institutes of Health reporting rules and the death last fall of an Arizona man who was participating in an experiment.

Then Havens will fly to Boston for an orientation program at Harvard. He will also look into special education programs for his daughter.

“When I look at Madison, I think she is so beautiful, so perfect, and I know she could have done so much,” he said. “Then I think of other parents in my situation, and I want them to have answers. I want them to have someone who will listen, who will understand.”