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‘Star Wars guy’: OHSU oncology CNA brings patients smiles, camaraderie

Certified nursing assistant Andrew Gray also lives with rare genetic cancer, giving him special connection to his patients
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Andrew Gray, an oncology certified nursing assistant at OHSU, poses in his "Star Wars" scout trooper costume (white plastic full body costume) with medical assistant Yen Nhi Vo (long straight dark hair, wearing a black and mustard-color nursing gear and a PPE mask)at the cancer infusion unit at the OHSU Center for Health and Healing building 2. Gray, who has cancer himself, works with cancer patients and volunteers consistently in his free time to continue to share his positivity and encouragement with others. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)
Andrew Gray, an oncology certified nursing assistant at OHSU, poses in his "Star Wars" scout trooper costume with medical assistant Yen Nhi Vo at the cancer infusion unit at the OHSU Center for Health and Healing building 2. Gray, who has cancer himself, works with cancer patients and volunteers consistently in his free time to continue to share his positivity and encouragement with others. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

Andrew Gray, 36, of Tigard, grew up watching “Star Wars” movies with his family. They would binge for hours as on-screen heroes battle through space and time.

Now an oncology certified nursing assistant at Oregon Health & Science University, Gray connects with patients the same way he connects with his family — through “Star Wars” movies.

Andrew Gray, an oncology certified nursing assistant at OHSU, who has cancer himself, works with cancer patients and volunteers consistently in his free time to continue to share his positivity and encouragement with others. He has short light blond/red hair, eye glasses and stands at the CHH2 clinic at OHSU.
Andrew Gray (OHSU)

Among OHSU patients old and young — from his day-to-day work at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to his volunteer visits to OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital — he’s known as “the ‘Star Wars’ guy.’” But that’s just one point of connection: He also has personal experience living with a rare cancer, bringing his patients struggling with complex illnesses a special camaraderie and empathy as he helps them through their treatments.

“Andrew’s interactions are always welcome by our patients,” says Eldon Lampson, clinical operations supervisor for ambulatory oncology in the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. “He is always one to have a great smile and a welcoming positive attitude. Andrew brings smiles to those he interacts with every day.”

Gray’s parents adopted him at age 14 months, knowing he could have a rare type of genetic cancer called multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 2A thyroid cancer. He was regularly tested throughout his childhood; the cancer was discovered when he was 10.

Even more than the “Star Wars” characters, his family became his ultimate heroes, supporting him through the diagnosis and treatment. He had his thyroid removed, but the condition is lifelong and untreatable; the cancer cells are resistant to current cancer drugs and therapies, such as radiation and chemotherapy.

Now he plays the role of hero for infusion patients at the OHSU Knight Cancer clinic.

“Adult patients and geriatric patients also deserve to smile and laugh and forget for a little while,” Gray says. “I would like to eventually branch out and raise awareness for my rare condition. I’ve been living with cancer longer than most of the people I room for their infusions have been diagnosed. I’ve been in and out of hospitals and clinics for 26 years.”

A heart for helping

Since his diagnosis, Gray has been determined to live life on his own terms, not cancer’s.

In 2009, he went to Kansas for college, aspiring to become an elementary school teacher. But in his sophomore year, his dad was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. The condition affects the brain and spinal cord, leading to a gradual degeneration of nerve cells.

“When my dad got sick, I came back to Lake Oswego,” Gray says.

That moment solidified in him a desire to help his dad and others get better. 

“I took a CNA class six weeks before he passed,” he says. “During my training, I got called into the hospital because Dad was there for pneumonia. After that, I threw myself into being a nursing assistant.” 

His father died in 2012.

He began his career in assisted living, then transitioned to caring for stroke and fall survivors at an inpatient physical and occupational therapy clinic. Then, he landed his dream job at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

Through his job as an oncological nursing assistant, Gray gets to be part of successful outcomes for people who come to Oregon’s largest hospital and cancer center for treatment. On a given day, he can be found prepping cancer patients for infusions, getting them snacks or a blanket, and working to make them comfortable with friendly conversation — a favorite part of the job for him.

Gray recalls one of his favorite patients, a diabetic amputee: “She was always positive and a bit sassy. I helped take care of her for nearly four years,” he says. “She liked to make beaded necklaces, and she made me one shortly before she passed away. I've worn it to work ever since.”

For the patients, the smiles, the love of ‘Star Wars’

When Gray walks past infusion rooms, it’s common to see a familiar patient say, “Hey, Andrew!” or fondly remember him as the “‘Star Wars’ guy.”

He enjoys immersing himself in character as a longtime volunteer with Cloud City Garrison, a nonprofit “Star Wars” costuming club that provides support at charity events, fundraisers and other community functions in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Gray dresses up as a Scout Trooper, a villain in the movies. 

“Bad guys doing good,” Gray quips.

Indeed, a lot of good is achieved through their efforts, including visits to sick children at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, participating in charity walks, and bringing cheer to patients at OHSU Knight Cancer clinics. For years, he has volunteered for ALS walks dressed as a Scout Trooper, in honor of his dad.

His spouse, Joy Rasmussen, also joins the cosplay events to help take pictures and ensure Gray’s costume is on point.

“I love that Andrew and I get to share experiences with people doing what we are both passionate about,” she says. “The joy we are able to bring to kids and adults alike is priceless.”

Through his “Star Wars” volunteering and each day in the clinic, Gray works to demonstrate for fellow cancer survivors his personal philosophy: Live his best life while he’s here, rather than being consumed by anxiety.

“The thing about cancer is, you either live life or let it consume you,” he says. “There’s no middle ground.”

He empathizes with his patients facing cancer, and works to be a beacon of hope for those who are struggling.

“It pays dividends to be present, every day, in the moment, with the people you care about, and not be so worried about what will happen tomorrow,” he says. “We are the authors of our day.

“As Grandmaster Yoda says, ‘For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.’”

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