Jessica Lopez, who graduated from Oregon State this spring with a bachelor's degree in biohealth sciences, spent the worst of the pandemic watching hundreds of people die.
For many of them, the last thing they felt was Lopez's hands clasping theirs.
"Hugging them and holding their hands provided peace for some folks while they were passing," Lopez recalled.
A lot of overwhelmed health-care providers burned out and quit during the pandemic. After commuting the 80 miles between OSU and Pacific Health & Rehabilitation in Portland from June 2020 to June 2021, Lopez said she knows how they felt.
"It affected my mental health," she recalled. "I kept seeing all these awful things — people on tubes, people being intubated, people in comas. A lot of these patients weren't able to see their families as they were passing."
At least 300 people died from COVID-19 at the facility during the year she worked there as a certified nursing assistant, said Lopez.
However, the experience didn't weaken her resolve to be a health-care provider. It confirmed it. "It gave me a deeper look into health care, how at times it's going to be a personal sacrifice," she said.
"I lost a lot of friends because a lot of them disagreed with me working in this industry," she added.
"They said they didn't feel safe around me," she said. "That really hurt because I really wanted friends to hear me out about my experiences, but not everyone is going to understand health care -- the hours, the relationships, just the everything."
What kept her going, she said, was how patients' faces lit up when she entered the room. "It warmed my heart," said Lopez. "I decided to keep commuting and try my best to keep going. It sparked more interest in a career in health care."
"At first, I did it for the money because I needed to pay off my tuition," she added. “I owed OSU a lot of money at the time. However, the longer I stayed, the more I wanted to stay for the patients and give them the care they needed."
Her family has never shied away in the face of adversity. "I grew up with a single mom, and through her and my grandma, I grew up with two strong women," she said. "They taught me to pursue my career and education. They encouraged me to go to college and pursue science."
A love for helping others
Lopez, 24, was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Portland. Her family was from El Salvador.
"They had to flee the country and come to the United States," she said. "Their story really touched me. It made me more dedicated to go to school, get a college degree and hopefully a master's degree or doctorate."
She vividly recalls her mother telling her about the day she skipped school.
"Unfortunately, that was the day many students were killed at the university because of the civil war," Lopez said. "My mother wasn't able to continue her education, and that's when they had to flee El Salvador. That story made me realize that not everyone has this opportunity to get an education.
"My family, my culture and their history has definitely formed who I am and why I want to pursue my education and go even higher," she added. "I am hoping to get into some kind of physician's assistance program, medical school or a master's program. I'm not sure quite yet."
Her mother worked in a nursing home in Portland and often took her to work, Lopez said.
"Growing up, I would always go to the nursing home and meet the elderly residents," she recalled. "I would volunteer and try to help out. Through that, I developed my love for medicine and just helping others."
She started volunteering at Kaiser Permanente in high school in the post- anesthesia care unit. "That was so cool," she said. "I loved it. I never got to see any surgeries, but I liked seeing people feeling so much better after their surgeries. I thought, 'Wow! I could make this into a career! This is really cool!'"
After graduating from Rex Putnam High School in Milwaukie, Oregon, in 2017, Lopez applied at OSU. "I initially chose Oregon State because all my friends were going there," she said. "I was very lost after high school. I didn't know where to go, so I just followed the flow."
"I'm very grateful I went to Oregon State and I am going to graduate from here, because my journey here has been so crazy."
When she was registering for her freshman classes, she joined the Educational Opportunities Program. Founded in 1969, the program supports the academic, personal and professional development of students who have traditionally been denied equal access to higher education.
"From there, I created my own path," Lopez said.
"I'm very grateful I went to Oregon State and I am going to graduate from here, because my journey here has been so crazy," she said. "People tell me I've literally tried everything here, and it's true. I wanted to get the full experience."
Stepping out of the comfort zone
During her first two years, she participated in Air Force ROTC. In her third year, she switched to Army ROTC.
"Even though I didn't complete ROTC, I'm very grateful for the experience," Lopez said. "It was very hard. I'm not going to lie. Waking up at 4 or 5 a.m., working out, it was a little hard initially, but after a little bit, I learned time management and how to work with others."
ROTC also helped Lopez find her voice. "I was very timid at the time," she said. "Slowly but surely, they began to give me more leadership positions."
Eventually, she addressed an entire battalion. "That was frightening at first because I hate public speaking," Lopez said. "Even though it was the most random part of my life, it was a really good experience."
Lopez was also able to go to Dyess Air Force Base in Texas for a summer internship. She's still in touch with some of her ROTC comrades, some of whom are now second or first lieutenants. "It was a really nice connection," she said.
She also pursued undergraduate research with the College of Veterinary Medicine through the STEM Leaders Program between 2017 and 2019.
The STEM Leaders Program is a collaboration between the College of Science, College of Forestry and College of Agricultural Sciences to increase the number of under-represented groups able to have hands-on learning experiences their first years at Oregon State.
"That was extremely fun too because I had no idea what I was doing -- doing titrations and these crazy things that at the time I thought were super complicated," she said. "Now, looking back, I think, 'Oh, that's just PCR [polymerase chain reaction]. I know how to do that now."
Lopez said her undergraduate years were certainly eclectic.
"In those sorts of experiences, I literally stepped out of my comfort zone and did random fun things that I normally wouldn't do," she said. "I'm also very grateful because I was able to create all these great connections."
Lopez also worked at ASOSU SafeRide, but that experience ended with the pandemic. After the service was suspended, her mother told her about a COVID unit that needed certified nursing assistants.
"I have a drive to help others. I hope I can relieve some pain."
"It was the hardest year, trying to do school and trying to commute to Portland while literally trying to save as many lives as possible," Lopez said. "It was the wildest thing because a lot of the people there were either new graduates who were nurses or new certified nursing assistants."
The commute itself was surreal, she remembered.
"COVID was very strong," she said. "It really hit the older population. There were about 300 or so folks who passed away. That was very hard to witness while, at the same time, going to where everyone was like, 'OK, everything's fine.'"
Lopez's diploma reflects the diversity of her education. Her specific degree is in biohealth sciences and Spanish with a minor in psychology and a medical humanities certificate.
Her immediate plans after graduation include continuing her work as a certified nursing assistant in the ambulatory surgical unit at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis. She hopes to get a lab position at the hospital as well.
"I'm going to take the opportunity to shadow as many surgeons as possible, while at the same time, work in a lab," she said. "I still want to get as many patient-care hours as possible."
She may become a physician's assistant, attend medical school, become a medical laboratory scientist or pursue a master's degree in medical lab science.
"I definitely want to explore as many options as possible before settling on one career," she said.
One of Lopez's over-arching goals is helping her family.
"I want to be financially stable and be in a place where I can help out my family because I really appreciate everything they've done and all the sacrifices," she said. "I hope I can give them some kind of financial stability. I want them to be able to rest."
In fact, she wants everyone to feel better.
"I have a drive to help others," she said. "I hope I can relieve some pain."