Pharmacy Perspectives - Graduation 2018 - 3
G R A D UAT I O N 2 0 1 8
hen Joe Oropeza was 17 years old
he wanted to become an Army
Ranger, one of the most elite
soldiers in the US Army. But two
strokes and open heart surgery -
prior to his high school graduation - put an end to
his military career before it started.
"I was 17 and invincible," says Oropeza,
who recently celebrated his 12th anniversary
After experiencing a "funny feeling" in his left
arm and leg, he told his dad. Eight hours and another stroke later, he finally went to his primary
care physician who ordered he go to the hospital
for a brain scan. "In my family you didn't go to
the hospital unless you were dying. Well, I was,"
According to Oropeza, "It was a very minor
event from which I could physically recover, but my
dreams of becoming an Army Ranger were dashed."
The MRI revealed damage to the right side
of his brain, which was consistent with a stroke.
His medical team was perplexed as to why a
healthy teen would suffer a series of strokes at
his age. So, they conducted myriad of tests that
yielded nothing. Then, one of his cardiologists
suggested checking his heart via transesophageal
echocardiogram. Oropeza underwent the procedure on his 18th birthday and received quite
the birthday present. A little tumor of fibrous
tissue - called a myxoma -was causing his
problems. "Every time my heart valve opened
it would suck up the tumor into the valve and
cause blood clots," says Oropeza.
He was given two choices. He could be on
lifelong warfarin or get the tumor surgically removed. As an active person who enjoyed playing
contact sports, he didn't think blood thinning
medication was a good option. So, he chose the
"Everything was moving so fast that day. I was
terrified. I had a sense of 'this cannot be happening,'" remembers Oropeza. Just hours into his
18th birthday, he signed all the legal documents
to undergo open heart surgery, including what he
calls the "death waiver."
"My surgeon tried to assuage my fears. He told
me there was less than a 1 percent chance of dying.
You know, as a teen confronted with open heart
surgery that really wasn't that reassuring. It still
meant I could die," he says.
"I've been blessed with the way everything
turned out. Faith got me through and because I
was in such great shape my road to recovery was
not as difficult for me."
Once again, however, Oropeza was in unchartered territory. "Physical therapists don't normally
see young adults in great shape raring to run after
heart surgery. I turned all their treatment plans
upside down," says Oropeza.
Two and a half months' post-surgery, he was
given full clearance. For most heart surgery
patients it averages about six months before they
are green-lighted to regular activity.
After Oropeza's brush with death put the
kibosh on his plans, he decided to go to college
for a degree in fire science and firefighting. "It was
the closest to Army Ranger training that I could
envision," says Oropeza, who worked as an EMT
while in school. The EMT experience allowed
him to see health care up close and what he saw
intrigued him. He realized the landscape of health
care was changing from a physician-centric model
to something more team based, which was very
attractive to him. "It seemed very similar to my
first love of being an Army Ranger where the
team works together to bring outcomes and help
communities. As an EMT I saw that non physician partners were valued and could make bigger
impacts," reminisces Oropeza.
His exposure to pharmacists as medications
experts caused him to do a double take. "I loved
everything I saw about pharmacists. I saw this as
an opportunity to be involved in patient care and
thought it could be limitless," he says.
Once his father heard about his goals, he
pointed out that during Oropeza's recovery from
heart surgery a pharmacist was instrumental in
ensuring his healing. By mistake, Oropeza had
been prescribed two different and conflicting
beta blockers, which could have caused major
problems. The pharmacist warned the cardiologist
and changes were made. "I didn't recall that, but
my dad did. So, it's a bit serendipitous that pharmacy played a significant role in my recovery and
now here I am ready to embark on my pharmacy
career," says Oropeza.
Post-graduation, Oropeza will be joining his
wife in Texas where she is a Physician's Assistant
(PA) and he will begin a PGY-1 residency at
Baylor University Medical Center. The two will
finally be together after three years of separation
while she was in PA school in Dallas and he was
pursuing his PharmD at CU. "Patience, understanding and a lot of love have gotten us through,"
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Pharmacy Perspectives - Graduation 2018 - 12