Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and Portland State University (PSU) School of Public Health

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Dean's Scholar


Adrian Perez

So much of what Adrian Perez is today — and what he wants his future to be — was born out of those two scary weeks when he was three years old.

Adrian got sick, and doctors in his hometown of Hermiston, Ore., had first told his family he had the flu and possible dehydration. But after extensive testing, they realized he had spinal meningitis. A snowstorm had clogged the roads and made it impossible for Adrian to be transferred to OHSU Hospital in Portland, so he was treated in Hermiston. Adrian would spend the next two weeks in the hospital, slowly recovering.

The meningitis had a severe effect on Adrian and his body. Afterwards, he would need to re-learn how to walk, how to talk, how to use the bathroom. Through physical therapy, he had to re-learn almost everything a three-year-old could do.

The experience had a lasting impact on him — igniting an interest in health care, and in helping people with physical rehabilitation, that continued through high school and beyond.

The experience, and later experiences, also underscored to him the debilitating barrier that language can be in healthcare. His parents — who had come to Eastern Oregon from Mexico — spoke little English at the time. He remembers his father’s anxiousness in trying to understand what the doctors were saying about his son’s condition.

“I do remember seeing him frustrated,” Adrian remembers.

Because of his long physical recovery after the meningitis – it had left Adrian with limited strength on the left side of his body – Adrian was less coordinated in sports and physical activities throughout middle and high school. But he worked hard in physical therapy, and he now has regained 98 percent of the strength and mobility on his left side. In 2012, he was diagnosed with permanent brain damage with Asperger’s-like symptoms – which may have come from the spinal meningitis. All of those challenges only furthered Adrian’s interest in physical rehabilitation in general.

He got a high school internship at a physical therapy clinic in Hermiston. And he remembers a patient who had sustained a bad knee injury, and who had long road to walking again. “I thought, ’I’ve been through that experience — what it’s like to not walk,’” Adrian remembers. “And I thought: This is what I’m going to do.”

There have been some detours along the way, especially as Adrian has tried to figure out how to find the money to help pay for school. He worked for two years immediately after high school at a Wal-Mart distribution center and saved some money for college. He then attended Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton from 2012 to 2015, getting an associate’s degree.

In September 2015, he transferred to PSU, where he’s now a junior working on his bachelor’s degree in health studies from the School of Public Health. He’s significantly helped by scholarships from his Hermiston church and from the federal TRiO program, which provides scholarships to first-generation college students from low-income families.

Adrian is planning to apply to physical therapy schools for next year — while understanding the odds he’s up against; many programs get 500 to 1000 applications for 60 or fewer positions, he says.

“It feels intimidating,” he says.

Adrian is proud of his parents — his father’s a maintenance mechanic in Hermiston; his mother is an office worker at the Hanford Site in Richland, Wash. His father became a U.S. citizen 14 years ago; his mother became a citizen as a child.

“They came from nothing,” he says.

He’s also proud that one generation removed from his parents immigrating to the U.S., their son might someday become a physical therapist.

He’s excited that he’ll be able to be a health care provider who can help Spanish-language families with limited abilities in English. He remembers not only his father’s frustration when his four-year-old son was very sick. He also remembers translating for the physicians and Spanish-speaking patients during his high school internship at the physical therapy clinic, and then later at his community college internship at Good Shepherd Hospital in Hermiston. “They’re just like everybody else,” he says of the Spanish-speaking patients. “They’re earning a living, and trying to seek help. However, if they don’t know what’s going on with their health, they don’t know how to get well.”

Adrian says he also knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without the scholarship help he’s received from his church and TRiO. That’s why programs like the Dean Scholarship Fund are so important to students from families like his, he says.

“It gives student the means to attend college — often being the first ones in their families to do that,” he says. “And it gives them a chance to explore new opportunities that they would never have the option to do if they had not been able to attend college.”