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OHSU Research Week is a full-circle journey for PSU scholar

Aspiring neuroscientist becomes the patient she hopes to one day help
Heather Hamilton
Heather Hamilton is a BUILD EXITO Scholar at Portland State University, an undergraduate research training program in partnership with OHSU. (OHSU)

Heather Hamilton had just begun pursuing neuropsychology in order to help people with traumatic brain injuries when she herself was hit by a car in a Southeast Portland crosswalk in 2013 and wound up in the trauma intensive care unit at OHSU with the very injury she wants to help heal.

Five years later – thanks to lifesaving care, a successful fight with her insurance company, intensive rounds of rehabilitation and her own sheer determination -- she joined dozens of students and faculty presenting their work during OHSU Research Week 2018.

Her study: “Characteristics of Non-Therapeutic Trauma Transfers to a Level 1 Hospital: An Analysis of an Institutional Trauma Registry.”

The lab: Led by Martin Schreiber, M.D., professor of surgery, and chief of trauma, critical care and acute care surgery, OHSU School of Medicine, one of the doctors who saved her life in 2013.

Hamilton is a BUILD EXITO Scholar at Portland State University, an undergraduate research training program in partnership with OHSU. The program supports underserved students to enter the biomedical sciences. She got in to PSU and was later awarded a Build Exito Scholarship after relearning how to read and write, working through her anger and swallowing her pride to accept the accommodations she needs so that she could remain on the path of study that she had started down.

“Disabled people are not well represented anywhere and it’s really hard, especially with an invisible disability,” she said. “My GPA is not so good. I look like a bad student, but I work harder than most students because I have to.”

Hamilton saw Schreiber on a list of OHSU principal investigators seeking BUILD EXITO students to work in their labs, remembered his name on her patient paperwork and reached out.

“Heather Hamilton is a fabulous example of the power of a mature trauma system, which spans all the way from the prehospital setting to recovery after trauma,” said Schreiber.  “Not only did the trauma system save her life, but it provided the vehicle to help her achieve an extremely high level of recovery and this happens around the world on a daily basis.”

“I am proud to be a part of our trauma system and honored to have Heather working in the trauma lab as an Exito student serving to improve outcomes for others like herself,” he added.

The study Hamilton presented at Research Week will help OHSU in its efforts to ensure the patient gets the right care, at the right time in the right setting. The study assessed how often patients are transferred to OHSU for trauma care but end up not needing treatment and instead occupying a bed that someone in need could have had. Her mentor is research manager Samantha Underwood, M.S., C.C.R.P.

In her junior year at PSU, Hamilton aspires to be an M.D./Ph.D. neuroscientist and is taking the steps to apply to medical school for fall 2019. She is grateful for support from her family and PSU and is fueled by her research and outstanding mentors at OHSU.

“I feel motivated to work hard because these people believe in me,” she said. “It’s just changed everything.”

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