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Single mother graduates to Dr. Mom

OHSU grad propels herself from despair to a medical degree
by: Christopher Onstott, New doctor Kelly Griffith-Bauer helps her son Braxton with his homework. Griffith-Bauer moved to Oregon with Braxton when she was 17 and put herself through premed at Portland State University before graduating from Oregon Health & Science University last week.

Sixteen years ago, Kelly Griffith-Bauer slept on the floor of her apartment in Gresham, her 18-month old son nearby in his PortaCrib, and her own head propped up by his extra clothes, the only pillow available.

She had one pot to cook meals and no idea how she was going to make it from day to day.

"I was literally just surviving," Griffith-Bauer says.

On this Wednesday, Griffith-Bauer's Southeast Portland home is filled with balloons and bouquets of flowers, remnants of a party celebrating her graduation last week from Oregon Health and Science University. Griffith-Bauer, now a physician, starts work at St. Vincent's Hospital next week. But she never would have gotten this far if she hadn't made a choice.

Griffith-Bauer, slim with clear green eyes and a smile that takes over her face, has come a long way from the 17-year-old single mother who was rejected by her parents and friends.

In St. Joseph, Mo., the community didn't take it well when the varsity cheerleader got pregnant, Griffith-Bauer says. Though she says the rift with her parents has been healed, at the time she relied on her grandparents for support.

"I felt like I'd done something wrong," she says. "You realize those friendships are thin."

After giving birth to her son, Braxton, in November of her senior year, Griffith-Bauer transferred to an alternative high school in town and hurried through the last credit she needed to graduate. Looking to escape the scorn of her hometown, she flew to Portland with her son to live with a family member.

That didn't last.

Griffith-Bauer says she was startled awake in the middle of the night and given 10 minutes to grab her things and leave.

She tried to stay with a friend in a teen-mom foster group, but couldn't live there permanently. A few Missouri friends and relatives pooled their money for a Gresham apartment.

For the next three years, Griffith-Bauer worked at the now-closed Zell Brothers Jewelers in downtown Portland, dropping off her son with a neighbor she barely knew. Even now, she says, the memory of leaving Braxton with a near stranger can still make her cry.

Griffith-Bauer lived on food stamps, free health care and clothing donated by a kindly co-worker. When she heard about a job opening at phone company U.S. West, Griffith-Bauer says she was more than ready to move on.

"I was so raw," she says. "I was so sick of struggling."

Desire to learn

The next few years were great, she says. Griffith-Bauer felt stable for the first time since coming to Oregon.

But in 2001, U.S. West eliminated her job and offered a choice: keep her position and move to Arizona, stay with U.S. West at a different position in Portland or accept a severance package that included career counseling and two years of tuition reimbursement should she return to school.

The jobs promised stability, but Griffith-Bauer took the riskier alternative.

Even during the toughest times, Griffith-Bauer says she never accepted that her education was finished after high school. In her own mind, she was still the young girl with the big dreams, the girl who sang the National Anthem at a Kansas City Royals baseball game and considered college a certain part of her future.

"I had this insatiable desire to learn," she says. "All I wanted was knowledge."

Inspired to go into medicine by her optometrist grandfather, Griffith-Bauer enrolled at Portland State University and told counselors she wanted to be premed.

PSU's counselors told her that as a single mother who had never taken the ACT placement exam or any college classes, she was taking on more than she could manage.

Nevertheless, Griffith-Bauer took on a full course load, and -- after tuition money from her severance package expired -- a part-time job at Starbucks. The hardest part of her new reality, she says, was going back on food stamps.

A natural talent

Dr. Naomi Fishman met Griffith-Bauer in class at PSU, and soon recognized how hard her new friend was working to balance motherhood and education. She says Griffith-Bauer would do her homework in the car while watching Braxton play soccer.

"She's very dedicated," Fishman says. "She's always been an amazing mom and put Braxton first."

Braxton, who often attended college classes with his mother, says he remembers looking out the window during lectures. But he had no idea until about a year ago that life had been so hard.

In 2006, Griffith-Bauer graduated from PSU, and says it is one of the proudest moments of her life. That year, Griffith-Bauer also met her husband, Jeremy Bauer, a forensic biomechanist. They met in downtown's Kells Irish bar, where Bauer played Irish music and Griffith-Bauer danced.

But graduating from PSU didn't mean Griffith-Bauer was on the path she envisioned. She applied to OSHU but wasn't accepted.

Instead of giving up, Griffith-Bauer made herself a more attractive candidate by learning Spanish and working on a mobile clinic for migrant workers.

Griffith-Bauer was accepted in medical school the following year.

Sarah Tinkler, who teaches PSU's "Women in the Economy" class, says few can reach their career goals as completely as Griffith-Bauer has. The biggest obstacles, Tinkler says, are financial and family support, neither of which were readily available to Griffith-Bauer.

"For someone who is trying to do something like medical school, it is practically impossible," Tinkler says.

Dr. Neil Swanson, the former OHSU chairman of dermatology who mentored Griffith-Bauer, thinks she will become an excellent doctor.

In fact, Griffth-Bauer still has one education goal left to achieve: She wants to specialize in dermatology, but was rejected when she applied for an OHSU residency.

In typical Griffith-Bauer fashion, she plans to apply again next year.

"She has kind of a natural talent that a lot of people don't have," Swanson says. "She's a remarkable individual."

Griffith-Bauer says her lifelong struggles help her connect to her patients in a unique way.

"I (was) given a gift," she says. "Everything I had gone through had given me this ability to see my patients with a different perspective. I feel connected to these people."