Brandi Vasquez was the only student who buried her face in her arms as her high school class watched "The Miracle of Life," a childbirth education movie in health class.
"I just couldn't watch. Growing up I was afraid of blood and cutting things. I was terrified of medicine. I never ever thought I would be a doctor," said Vasquez, 32, who is now completing nine years of education at Oregon Health & Science University. She is completing a combined medical degree and a doctorate before pursuing a career in obstetrics and gynecological surgery.
She is one of 850 graduates receiving OHSU degrees on Friday, June 4, at 8 p.m. at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1001 S.W. Broadway Ave., Portland. The commencement speaker will be Keith Thomson, chairman of the OHSU Board of Directors and a retired vice president of Intel Corp.
Vasquez is freckled, dark-haired and blue-eyed, and she has an intense gaze. When she was growing up she wanted to pursue all manner of careers: math major, photographer, engineer. She came to OHSU wanting to be a researcher but decided she also needed clinical medical training. Working with patients changed her focus from conducting research to practicing medicine.
"I found that working one-on-one with patients is more immediately satisfying. It's more gratifying but on a smaller scale than research has been for me," Vasquez said.
She chose obstetrics and gynecology because she is fascinated by women's health issues. "I fell in love with gynecological surgery, and I found that this field has a lot of variety," she said. "I guess I like having a lot of options. You could say it's been a nine-year learning experience."
While a student she revamped the microbiology lab curriculum to make it more relevant for students; she helped teach microbiology labs; she volunteered for four years at The Wallace Medical Concern, a Portland-area free clinic; she was awarded the prestigious Harry and Huldah Sears Memorial Award and the Tartar Trust Fellowship for being an outstanding graduate student; and she spent a month in Costa Rica learning Spanish and tropical medicine. She also received full funding from the National Institutes of Health for her doctorate in microbiology. Her dissertation concerns how meningococcal and gonorrhea bacteria cause disease.
Despite all of her awards, Vasquez doesn't feel she is any better than any other student.
"I've just been here longer. I'm just hard-working and I enjoy what I'm doing," she said.
It's hasn't been an easy haul, though. In the past five years both of her parents passed away. Her father died of cancer, and then her mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
"I took some time off when I needed it," she said, "but I had to keep going. I knew it wouldn't have pleased them if I quit."
She also got through the tough times through her love of cooking. She baked cakes and cookies for her lab mates on special occasions. She also credits others around her with helping her get through these nine years. "I would not have learned what I have, or survived through the program, without support and guidance from friends, family and mentors," she said. "So many people shape who we are."
Her advice for young people trying to choose a career path is, "Learn what you love to do and enjoy the process of finding out what that is."
Vasquez -- the baker, the physician the doctoral graduate -- is now heading to Duke University for a residency in obstetrics and gynecology.