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Let Knowledge Save Lives

Reconstructing lives with microsurgery

The email had a familiar, desperate tone. A 4-week-old Romanian infant had developed a giant growth on her neck that would kill her if she didn’t get emergency surgery. Dr. Daniel Petrisor was the child’s last hope.

“They said if I didn’t come they would be forced to make a difficult decision,” says Petrisor, a Portland State alum and leading cancer surgeon.

Petrisor made the trip to his native country and performed hours of intense surgery to remove the tumor and reconstruct the girl’s neck and jaw. She survived, and a recent photo shows barely a trace of injury.

It was the second time Petrisor had been called to serve Romania, the country he fled as a young child with his family to escape an oppressive communist government. In 2010, he responded to pleas from the parents of 6-month-old Matia Simion to save their child from a mouth cancer that was threatening his life. With help from churches, the child was flown to Louisiana, where Petrisor was practicing. He sliced apart the jaw, removed the tumor and reconstructed the boy’s lower face. Later, media coverage of the successful surgery turned Petrisor into a minor celebrity in Romania and his hometown of Beaverton.

Now at Oregon Health & Science University, Petrisor, 40, has become a go-to surgeon for some of the most complex head and neck cases. If cancer has invaded the mouth, eyes, throat or neck, often because of smoking, drinking or a combination, Petrisor removes it – a procedure that requires some gut-wrenching cutting and deconstruction, then painstaking reconstruction.

It’s a rare skill, with roots in his days as a biology student at Portland State. As one of the early members of PSU’s nascent Honors College, Petrisor spent time as an intern with a surgeon at the National Institutes of Health who worked on saliva glands. Fascinated by the intense, precise nature of the work, he enrolled in dental school as a steppingstone to becoming an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

Between rounds at OHSU, Petrisor spent a few minutes reminiscing about his time at PSU. He was a member of the first group of PSU Ambassadors – a group of students that welcome newcomers to campus, lead tours and promote the university.

“That was an exciting time,” he says. “You really got to know the heart of the university and showcase it.”

That year, then-President Judith Ramaley adopted PSU’s motto “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” As their end-of-the-year gift, Petrisor’s ambassadors group installed the motto on the Broadway overpass, making it an instant PSU landmark.

Service to humanity has become Petrisor’s calling.

“My motivation is the patient,” he says. “They each have a story. They each have a family. They’re someone’s son or daughter. For them to entrust their care to me and my team is an incredible privilege.”

At Portland State University, we believe knowledge works best when it serves the community.