Return to #CaringScholar Stories Student-Caregiver Scholarship Story: Tommy Tran

A Caring Scholar of Fall 2016

The Student Caregiver Scholarship award provides three university students in the United States with a $1,500 scholarship grant for tuition and/or books, based on each applicant's compelling 1,500-word essay or two-minute video story submission.

Tommy Tran is a student at the University of Houston who is studying biotechnology and is caring for his father, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Tommy was among more than 950 student-caregivers and 25 finalists who applied for the latest round of scholarship grants, and was chosen by a panel of senior care expert judges as one of just three winners. This is his caregiving story submitted with his scholarship application.

Who are you caring for and how are you involved as a caregiver?

My name is Tommy Tran. I’m 17 years old and I am taking care of my dad who has terminal cancer. During my sophomore year of high school, my dad was hospitalized unexpectedly due to an enlarged prostate. His enlarged prostate caused a urinary tract infection, which found its way into the bloodstream and migrated throughout the body (known as sepsis or septicemia), and affected his heart and spine.

The days leading up to his hospitalization, he could not sleep at night because the pain was constant and excruciating. I encouraged him to seek medical aid, but he refused since we couldn’t afford the medical expenses. Every day, I could see my dad’s health deteriorating. He finally was admitted to emergency care a few days later. I remember his urine bag being as red as watermelon juice due to the blood in his urine. He was not eating and was loaded on painkillers. I had to empty his urine bag every half hour since my dad was on lots of intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration. He was very pale and remained unresponsive most of the time.

The neurosurgeon removed the infection pressing on the spinal cord in a high-risk, last-minute procedure. Although the infection to the spine was cleared, a doctor explained that an MRI scan showed that the infection originated in the heart and was circulating the bacteria throughout my dad’s body. He could not walk or stand up on his own, so I helped him to his wheelchair and walker anytime he needed anything. My dad was finally discharged a month later, diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer.

The medical bills came and we were unable to pay them. Not only were we financially struggling, but our family began to fall apart. My dad became depressed and contemplated suicide. I consoled and reminded him that he is my best friend and that is very important to me. I continued to help my dad with his daily functions such as eating and emptying his bladder with a catheter until he could have an operation to remove any blockage of the urethra.

The urologist explained that he could not remove my dad’s prostate since the cancer had already spread to other areas of the body via the lymph nodes. Instead, my dad was put on radiation, hormones and chemotherapy treatment. The side effects of the cancer treatment included hot flashes, hair loss, weight loss, fatigue, nausea and vomiting.

I was lucky enough to be able to cook his meals, help him shower, give him his medications, mow the lawn, pay the bills, pick up his medications and more. After finishing all of his treatment, the oncologist gave him a terminal prognosis. I try to give as much mental support as possible since coping with the end of life is tough. Despite the inevitable, we always remind each other to stay happy with what remaining time we have together.

How has your role as a caregiver influenced the decision for your major/career path?

Taking care of my dad has motivated me to pursue a career in medicine. Before my dad was ever admitted to the hospital, I served as my parent’s translator any time they met with their doctors since neither of them speak fluent English. Translating for my parents was my first real exposure to the medical field. Seeing what the doctors did and how complex their job was got me interested in it. During my dad’s emergency room stay, I thought I was going to lose him. If it weren’t for the doctors and staff at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, my dad would have never made it.

The first time I saw my dad stand up after the procedure on his spine brought tears to my eyes. I always thought he would be bound to a wheelchair, unable to live the same life he had a few months prior to the hospitalization. My father’s urologist explained that my father’s cancer is a very aggressive type that rejects many current treatment options. Despite there not being many treatment options for late-stage cancers, there is constant research for better treatment options and potentially a cure.

The second time my father went to the ER, he was bleeding internally due to a ruptured peptic ulcer. The doctors still aren’t sure whether the cancer treatment or pain medications caused it. The best they could do was let the ruptured stomach wall heal by reducing stomach acid levels. This was the first time I realized how complex medicine and science is.

During the nights I stayed at the hospital taking care of my dad, some of the nurses sparked up conversation about how there would be a shortage of doctors in the near future. As the global population grows and ages, more medical professionals will be needed to handle the mass threshold of patients. As the world continues to be polluted with toxins and chemicals, more and more people will encounter cancer.

Not only is medical care complex, it’s also very expensive. I want to one day use my personal experience and medical knowledge to help individuals and families going through the same situation I did. The summer after my dad got sick, I volunteered at the Vallbona Health Center, which partnered with the Harris County Hospital District Foundation to provide affordable medical care for economically disadvantaged residents of Harris County.

During my time volunteering, I saw how grateful the patients were to the physicians who participated in this system. I believe that everyone should have access to high quality medical care and not have to worry about the finances or politics behind it. My dad’s cancer journey motivated me to pursue medical school so I can receive the proper training and knowledge to impact other people’s lives.

How would this scholarship be helpful to you in your current student-caregiving role?

This scholarship would help me and my family tremendously. Before my dad became ill, our family was already struggling financially. After the emergency room visits and the cancer treatment, the medical expenses combined with normal family expenses were overwhelming. My dad is retired and could not work if he wanted to. My mom is a stay-at-home mother and barely makes any income. My brother is a full-time student at the University of Houston and is starting the process of applying to Pharmacy School. My brother and I are first-generation students with very low guidance about higher education.

This scholarship would help me pursue my undergraduate studies as a biotechnology major towards medical school. This scholarship would cover textbook expenses and any other fees that I might encounter in my first year of college. If my dad were to hear that I got a scholarship, he would be so proud and delighted. I do not have a car and most likely won’t have one to drive to work, so I may have to rely on public transportation. Having the scholarship might help me focus more on my studies and classes in college by reducing the amount of time I have to spend working.

This caregiving story has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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