It was the middle of the night, and Alex Edgell’s heart pounded.
Everything had happened so fast. Edgell, 27, who’d recently been diagnosed with stage-four non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was undergoing an echocardiogram at OHSU in preparation for chemotherapy.
Then, the steady rhythm on the screen accelerated. Edgell’s breathing became rapid, and pressure built under his ribcage. With little time to spare, a doctor deftly pierced his chest with a needle, draining more than a wine bottle’s volume of fluid from his thoracic cavity. He had suffered a pericardial effusion — a buildup of fluid in the pericardium, the protective sac surrounding the heart.
As a patient, Edgell felt immediate relief.
But as a soon-to-be student of OHSU’s Physician Assistant Program? Edgell couldn’t help but find the experience educational — even a little cool.
“It’s almost like an internship that you’re more involved in than you’d expect,” he said. “It’s the kind of experience you want to have as a student to see these things happening.”
Edgell pauses, a wry grin flashing across his face. “I just got a couple steps closer to the action than I maybe would’ve wanted.”
Alex Edgell, B.S., M.P.A.S. Class of 2023, experiences two sides of OHSU.
He’s a patient, who in late 2019 began coming to OHSU to treat his stage-four non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Though the cancer went into remission almost a year later, he was diagnosed in early 2022 with Hodgkin lymphoma. Last summer, he underwent an autologous stem cell transplant to treat it.
Edgell is also a student on the cusp of earning his Master of Physician Assistant Studies from the OHSU School of Medicine’s Physician Assistant Program. After taking time off for his stem cell transplant, Edgell is set to graduate three months after his class in December of 2023.
But to Edgell, those seemingly disparate connections to OHSU don’t exist separately. For him, they inhabit the same place.
“The place and people that saved my life and the place and people that teach my lectures, they’re all one in the same,” he said. “It’s strange, but also amazing. It’s such a full circle. That relationship completed the picture of OHSU for me.”
“The people I’d worked with as a patient had just been so extraordinary. I figured, ‘This is the place. These are the people I want to learn from.’”Alex Edgell
Edgell has always tried to understand the importance of compassion and care in health care, and he has always wanted to work in medicine. After earning his B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Oregon in 2018, Edgell worked as a medical assistant and scribe at Southwest Family Physicians in Tigard. He relished in applying his science background to his work, but most of his joy came from building relationships with people, experiencing their journeys and impacting them in positive ways.
Edgell followed that thread and decided he wanted to be a physician assistant. But as he prepared to apply to physician assistant programs, he got sick. What started as a persistent cough morphed into stage-four non-Hodgkin lymphoma — specifically, diffuse large B cell lymphoma. Tumors had appeared in his chest, pancreas and both kidneys.
Despite the diagnosis, Edgell — influenced by his treatment at OHSU — applied to go to school at the place he was being treated.
“The people I’d worked with as a patient had just been so extraordinary,” he said. “I figured, ‘This is the place. These are the people I want to learn from.’”
During his treatment, Edgell was accepted. Soon after that, the treatment had sent the cancer into remission.
Then, halfway through his first year at OHSU, Edgell felt a lump in his neck. A biopsy confirmed the news. It was lymphoma.
“I was like, ‘Well. Here we go again,’” he said.
Whether or not Edgell’s current lymphoma is connected to his previous diagnosis is up for debate. They could be completely different, but it is possible they are related. In other words, because Edgell’s first diagnosis has only been in remission for about two-and-a-half years, he could either have one cancer or two.
“Because there’s this question of, ‘Does he have one or two cancers,’ they decided to — I use the term ‘reset,’” he said.
Edgell’s “reset” was an autologous stem cell transplant. First, healthy stem cells were taken from Edgell’s body and stored. Then, Edgell was subjected to an aggressive chemotherapy treatment to destroy all the stem cells he retained — healthy or not. The stem cells that were removed were then returned to take root and generate new, cancer-free blood cells.
Edgell took three months off from school for the transplant in summer of 2022, but his transplant — along with his entire patient experience at OHSU — has been just as valuable a learning experience as his curriculum. The compassion, care and connectedness he feels as a patient informs his experience as a student.
“You can know exactly what somebody needs,” Edgell said. “But if you can’t connect with them and convince them it’s what they need, that you care enough to tell them what they need, that you have the same interests and hopes for their health, none of that knowledge will help if you can’t connect with them.
“That’s the benefit of going through what I’m going through. I know what it’s like to experience some of this stuff. Whether it’s the pain and delirium that comes with coming off pain meds to knowing the stress and anxiety after you have an appointment. I’ve experienced that frequently. I can tell them honestly, ‘I know it sucks what I’m telling you right now. But I’ve been there, and I’m going to do my best to help you, to be there for you, to get you to where you need to be.’”
Right after Edgell learned he had stage-four non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2019, he called his girlfriend, Rachel Cleveland, to break up with her.
At the time, Cleveland was in Hawaii for graduate school. The two had been together five years. Engagement was just on the horizon. Cancer, Edgell thought, dashed that future. A week later, Cleveland left school and flew to Portland to help care for him. In December of 2020, the two became engaged. This March, they married.
“I want to do the best with whatever I’ve got with whatever time I’ve got,” Edgell said. “That’s everywhere from being the best husband I can be, the best son I can be to my parents, the best brother. And hopefully the best PA I can be. I don’t know what that looks like to be honest. But I’m hopeful.”