From Patient to Provider, Cancer Survivor Perseveres

Erica was inspired to pursue a career in health care after her own experience as a cancer patient. She thrived at UEI College in Phoenix

Erica Rivas never pictured herself working in the medical field until she became a patient herself.

Her son was just two and her daughter four when her stomach pains began. She was told there were pre-cancerous cells on her cervix and a tumor on her uterus.

“I lost myself,” she said. “It was scary for sure. I decided I didn’t want to just get through the surgery. I wanted to get through the surgery and go back to school and do something with my life. If I have cancer, it’s not going to stop me. I’m going to do what I want to do.”

While in the hospital, Erica encountered some less-than-helpful medical staff. One nurse really rubbed her the wrong way.

“I told them I was in pain and the nurses didn’t care,” Erica said. “One nurse told me ‘If you think you can do my job, let’s see you go to school and waste your time and money. Do my job for me.’ I thought ‘Bet. Don’t tell me twice.’”

A few weeks later, Erica saw a video about UEI College on TikTok and it inspired her to take a chance.

A LONG JOURNEY BEGINS

The problem right from the beginning is that Erica lives in the small town of Blythe, California, and the nearest UEI College was in Phoenix, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. The school told her if she was willing to drive, they were willing to accept her into the Medical Assistant program.

“What sold me was the walk through the campus,” Erica said. “Where I’m from everyone knows everyone but no one helps each other. Everyone told me Phoenix was so scary. I thought people would be so rude, but I met some of the nicest, sweetest people ever. We walked around and the first classroom he took me to was Ms. Whiteside. Some of her students were waiting to graduate and told me it was doable. I was like ‘Dang, everyone is just kicking butt like this?’ I thought imagine if that was me.”

Erica signed up the same day and then got to work.

“That decision was the best decision I’ve made in my entire life,” she said. “My mom and dad never graduated high school or college. I have seven sisters and five brothers. Half did not graduate high school. I thought shoot, let’s try it.”

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‘WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER’

School has never been enjoyable for Erica, but UEI was different. The warmth from the staff made Erica feel needed and she discovered all the medical topics came naturally after all she had been through.

“As soon as we got to do shots and blood draws and hands-on work, everything about it was awesome,” she said. “It was so easy. You’re learning about yourself, and how your own human body works. It’s like a cheat code. I was drawn to it.”

Erica’s own health experiences also made her a valuable tutor to her classmates. She started tutoring her classmates over the phone and on Zoom and even coming to campus on days when she didn’t need to, just to help and continue learning.

“I was interested in helping my classmates get over that barrier,” she said. “We’re in this together. I’m not scared of anything. I’ve been through too much to worry about you messing up on me. It was super fun. It made me excited about it. I was excited about doing something new and I was good at it.”

“She was a stellar student,” said Rachel Whiteside, Erica’s instructor. “She pushed and she came a long way. She got straight A’s and perfect attendance. She was amazing. Always pushing, asking questions. She was enthusiastic, determined, motivated, focused, all of the above.”

‘I CAN PROVE PEOPLE WRONG’

While Erica excelled at school she was still struggling with her health. Even as a student she went through several laparoscopic surgeries. After a two-year battle with cancer, she was deemed cancer-free, but she still had painful cysts and enlarged organs. As she walked across the stage at graduation and was named a “Student of Distinction” during the ceremony, her health problems remain unsolved.

“It’s something you don’t want to experience, especially as a mom to young kids who really doesn’t have her life together,” Erica said. “If I was to go, I have nothing to leave for them. If I was to go it would actually cost them money. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t get so mad at that nurse. I want to thank her someday. I’ve been through so much and I’m still going through my journey. I’m going to keep doing what I do with a smile on my face and making people mad. That’s fine with me.”

After graduation, Erica jumped right back into school. She is currently enrolled in nursing school.

“I can prove people wrong, and I am strong enough to do whatever I put my mind to,” she said. “Even when people tell me I have cancer and PCOS, endometriosis and now I get to have a whole hysterectomy, I’m still going to try my best to stay strong. I feel like the program and the people I was with in class, they helped me find me again in the best possible way. They helped me be me and be strong and do what I need to do. Everyone told me I could do this. I’m going to keep pushing through.”

“She is going to do great things in life,” Ms. Whiteside said. “This is just the first step, a door opening to show her she can do it. When you come from so many things in life you don’t know if you can do it but she’s doing it. That’s an amazing feeling. That’s why we are here, to serve our community one student at a time. That’s what we are doing!”

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