The Oregonian: A second chance to pursue a childhood dream
Author: Tom Hallman Jr., The Oregonian
Posted: September 23, 2016

Read the original story in The Oregonian.

The start of the high school year brings with it pressure. Not just for students, but for parents who worry. They look at a mediocre GPA, a lousy report card and a lack of interest in school and they figure the kid isn't going to amount to much in life.

If that sounds familiar in your home, you need to learn about Eric Eddy. Like thousands of students in the metro area, Eddy also started school this month. He's in his second year at Oregon Health & Science University's school of medicine.

He's 42, the oldest student in the program.

How he got there is a story of redemption, second, third and fourth chances and shared sacrifice. His journey is a reminder that a simple question can lead to a profound answer.

Eddy was born in Medford, where he suffered from breathing problems brought on by temperature inversions in the winter. Nearby lumber mills helped create a thick fog that settled over the city for days on end. He spent countless hours in emergency rooms and doctor's offices.

"The doctors were my buds," Eddy said. "I was around them so much they were like my family. My pulmonologist came to family barbeques."

The problems vanished when his family moved to Beaverton, where he attended public school.

"As long as I wasn't causing problems, everything was fine with my parents," he said. "Only my mother had graduated from high school. All my report cards said the same thing: 'Eric is bright, but he doesn't apply himself.'"

In high school, his grade point average was a 1.5. His parents were just happy he didn't flunk out. School bored Eddy. He cared only about his girlfriend. Her parents sent her to another school. During his junior year, Eddy would skip school and hang out as his girlfriend's school. In the afternoon, he worked part time in grocery store.

He dropped out of his school part way through his senior year, but before leaving he took the SAT test. He scored 1350 on a 1600 scale. When the college catalogues arrived in the mail, they ended up in the trash because everyone knew Eric Eddy wasn't college material.

He earned his GED. He and his girlfriend got married and had two kids, a boy and a girl. He got a job through a temp service, getting promoted and eventually running a manufacturing line for a company that made electronic hardware for home security systems. Then the couple divorced, and the economy tanked. Eddy lost his job.

To support himself and his kids, who lived with him, he started an automobile performance business, but that failed. He hired on as a contract driver for FedEx. A buddy got him a job using a lift to go from grocery store to grocery story to change overhead lights.

That night, he thought about where he'd landed. He was on track to live the life of a single father, a man struggling to do the right thing, burdened, in a sense, with his past and choices made, or not made.

At what point does it become impossible for a person to chart a new course?

He wasn't sure.

But he remembered the words of his friend: Never compare your blooper reel to everyone else's highlight reel.

Over the next few weeks, Eddy thought about what he really wanted to do. He called it "deep and philosophical thinking," a look back on his life. He knew the answer.

He wanted to be a doctor.

He remembered how the doctors had cared for him when he was a child. He admired what they did. He liked how they had a mission.

He told his son and daughter what he was considering. They gave him permission to attempt something crazy. Trying for medical school. No college degree. At age 35. Crazy.

But this was his chance.

He started in community college, earned excellent grades. He was smart. He was admitted to Portland State University. Again, excellent grades. The path forward was arduous. At times, it felt insurmountable.

Some challenges were internal:

"There were people asking if I was sure I wanted to do it," Eddy said. "But throughout this metamorphosis I never had anyone tell me that I couldn't do whatever it was I was trying to do, except myself."

Other challenges were practical:

Until his kids were old enough to be on their own, Eddy's mother watched them after school. To pay tuition, he took out loans and worked almost any job to pay his bills. The 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift loading United Parcel Service trucks. The occasional car repair job. A paid peer-mentor position at Portland State University.

"Basically, whatever I could do to bring in a little extra money to keep us afloat," he said. "We were on food stamps, the whole time. The kids were on the Oregon Health Plan and I signed up with the Affordable Care Act."

He applied to medical school, a long shot. But he emphasized not just his grades and test scores, but his life and the strange route he'd taken.

He got in.

That was just the start.

"I'm constantly surrounded with the best and brightest individuals in the world," he said. "No exaggeration."

Once, he would have been called a simple dreamer. He was fine with that label now. It's important to have a dream, and then pursue it when the time is right. He learned the difference between knowledge and wisdom, coming up with a set of his core values:

It's never too late unless you tell yourself that it is. It's not enough to work hard or to work smart, you have to do both. Sometimes you have to back up to move forward. Don't define yourself, and don't allow anyone else to define you either.

"I look at how well my kids handled the struggles we had to go through to get here," he said. "They handled it with grace, and it helped me more than I can say."

In May, he married a woman who has two daughters, 5 and 8. His daughter is 18, his son, 19.

"My daughter and the girls are all talking about medical school in their future lately," he said. "Well, Grace, the youngest, sometimes wants to be a vet. And sometimes she wants to be a puppy.

"But most often she wants to be a doctor."

Eddy is keeping an open mind, but said he's drawn to emergency and trauma surgery. He knows that will require more education, a residency and internship.

But he's chasing that dream.

When he was admitted to medical school, OHSU ran a short blurb of each of the 146 students admitted to the class of 2019. The school celebrates each class with a white coat ceremony, an event that symbolizes the student's journey to become a doctor.

A few weeks ago, Eddy received an email from a PhD researcher at OHSU. She'd seen the in-house newsletter and read the brief mention of Eddy's background.

She wrote to say she's been thinking of med school. And she's posted Eddy's picture in her cubicle for inspiration.

--Tom Hallman Jr.; 503 221-8224