The basement parking garage at Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Health & Healing thrums with nervous energy. Vast and windowless, the structure echoes with the squeak of tires and the grumble of motors. Flustered drivers crane their necks for open spots. Patients scurry up and down the ramps, clutching bags, pushing strollers, hunting for the elevators, unsure of their bearings.
Until they find Mehrdad Ramezan Baik.
His eyes get you first. They warm the cavernous chill with a sort of psychic bioluminescence. And when he says hello, his smile makes the high beams look dim.
On a recent morning, he was standing at the entry gate, greeting drivers as they rolled up to get their tickets. Mehrdad — everyone calls him by his first name — is often the first person that patients encounter at OHSU. On paper, his job is to help them navigate the passage from the garage to their appointment — no small task for one of the busiest medical centers in the state. He gives directions, opens doors, carries bags, sorts out lost tickets and generally makes sure the operation runs smoothly.
“What I do is provide a warm welcome for our patients,” he says.
But his role is more profound than that.
The response Mehrdad inspires in patients is astonishing. His manager, Ashley Frias, typically gets a dozen comments about him every month.
“And these are not just ‘great employee’ comments,” she says. “These are heartfelt with stories about the impact he has made.”
Ten years ago, a retired painter and her boyfriend asked Mehrdad to park their car in the garage so they could go to the gym; Parkinson’s disease made walking difficult for her. In the elevator, they realized they had forgotten her gym bag in the back seat. But if they went to get it, they’d be late for their next appointment. No problem. Mehrdad found the car, retrieved the bag, brought it up to the gym, and handed it to them personally.
“From that point forward, he knew our names and we knew his,” the man wrote in a letter to OHSU President Danny Jacobs, M.D., M.P.H., FACS, hailing Mehrdad as “an exceptional employee of the highest caliber.”
“The nicest man at OHSU,” another patient wrote to Jacobs. “He has always been incredibly nice, always greeting me or my wife in the nicest way, with his big smile, going out of his way to help everyone I have ever seen him interact with.”
“Mr. Sunshine” is how one patient describes him on social media.
In a typical day, Mehrdad interacts with between 500 and 600 patients.
“I want to make sure they have a good experience,” he says. “I see myself as the ambassador of OHSU.”
He helps them with their wheelchairs, escorts them to the lobby, holds the elevator doors. He knows what floor the dermatology department is on. He can tell you if the café is still open. He helps you if you can’t find your car. He knows the rhythms and the routines, and where to find the unexpected sanctuaries of calm amid the bustling corridors.
But more than any of that, he has a knack for connecting with people.
“I cannot explain it,” he says. “It’s my superpower. I wake up at 4 a.m. and I pray. I want to be in charge of my day. I want to be aligned with joy, life and positive energy. I do not take anything for granted. I cherish every moment of my life.
“The energy is like a precious gem that I can share with people.”
Good at making people feel good
Mehrdad means “given by love” in Farsi, the language of Iran, where he was born. Growing up in Tehran, his early impressions of America were based on John Wayne movies and Disney cartoons. After high school he worked in a string of jobs, including a stint in a chocolate factory.
In the 1990s his sister got married and moved to Portland, along with their mother. Mehrdad and his brother waited for a visa for more than seven years before finally arriving in Portland and reuniting with their family in 1999.
“What a beautiful day that was,” he says. “My destiny brought me here.”
He was 32 years old and spoke no English. He got a job at a parking lot downtown and took a dictionary to work. Every day he went through it, page by page, to learn the unfamiliar language.
“I learned this language and I earned this language,” he laughs. “I started from scratch. It was hard but I never gave up. I told myself, ‘You have a future in this country. This is your home. This is your moment. This is your time. God has a plan for you.’”
Mehrdad signed up with SP+, the contractor that manages the parking garage for OHSU, in 2012, and became the lead valet. When the pandemic hit, OHSU discontinued valet parking at the Center for Health & Healing, and Mehrdad could have transferred to another garage. But he chose to stay.
“I am good at making people feel good. It is a special gift I have been given,” he says. “Every day, I make sure I bring healing energy to our patients. Every day — every day. I want to bring the best.
“The healing starts right at the gate as the patients come through. What I am doing is practicing the muscle of humanity.”
Prayers in the parking garage
In October, after many years of battling Parkinson’s disease, a familiar patient — the retired painter who forgot her gym bag — decided to end her life. Her boyfriend was devastated.
On his next trip to OHSU, he spotted Mehrdad at the entry gate. It was the first time he had seen Mehrdad without his girlfriend at his side.
Fighting back tears, he told Mehrdad why she was missing. They talked about life, death and illness. And after that, they gave each other a hug.
“I have huge empathy for our patients over what they are going through,” Mehrdad says.
Several years ago, his mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. The doctors gave her five months. She fought on for five years.
“It was so hard for all of us,” he says. “I will never forget her amazing stamina and faith. Because of her, I said I’m going to work in this field and help people.”
Mehrdad has won several awards for his service. He was named SP+ Employee of the Year in 2017. He has twice been honored with a silver medallion from Jacobs for excellent customer service.
“That is a huge honor for me,” he says.
But the most heartfelt gratitude comes from the patients he has gotten to know over the years. They greet him like a friend. They take selfies with him. They chat.
“Sometimes they ask me, ‘Mehrdad, do you have a moment?’ We hold hands and pray,” he says. “They say ‘We need you. We need your healing smile.’ Sometimes I feel like they are coming to my office!”
An older woman pulls up to the entry gate and rolls down her window. She leans over and stretches out her arm at an awkward angle but has trouble grabbing the ticket from the dispenser. “It’s so hard to reach,” she says.
“Don’t worry,” Mehrdad smiles, stepping in to tug the ticket free. “I am here for you.”