Manny Rivera was 21, a young father with an infant son, when he experienced the worst day of his life.
He and his wife, Kailey, were going out to dinner with family members on a September evening. Their baby, Carson, was only three months old, so they turned to a long-time family friend and experienced babysitter to watch him for the evening.
But when Kailey went to the babysitter’s Oviedo home to pick Carson up after dinner, the baby’s skin was cold to the touch. When she picked him up, he grunted. She asked the babysitter if something had happened and he said no, but as she got into her car, Kailey called an ambulance.
Paramedics raced the baby to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, pressing the Riveras for details about what had happened. Though the babysitter initially denied it, he later admitted that he’d put Carson in a bathtub of water and left him alone – and Carson nearly drowned.
At the hospital, Carson’s prognosis was grave. The medical team reported that one of his lungs was 75 percent full of fluid and the other was 50 percent full. The baby had only a 10 percent chance of survival, doctors told the family.
“They didn’t think he’d make it through the night,” Manny recalls. “They told us to say goodbye to him, to tell him how much we love him.”
Miraculously, however, Carson made it through the night. And, for the next 45 days, he remained in an intensive care unit at Arnold Palmer Hospital, where Manny watched every day as respiratory therapists helped his tiny son. “The majority of the time, the people I saw were RTs (respiratory therapists). They were keeping him on the ventilator,” recalls Manny.
When the team told Manny and his wife that their son had not suffered any brain damage, he was so grateful that he wanted to find a way to help others. So he began asking the RTs questions about respiratory therapy and their training.
Manny, who graduated from Lake Howell High School in 2009, had already been searching for his career path. He had planned to go into the military the previous year, but when his wife, Kailey, discovered she was pregnant, she asked him to reconsider. Now, after the worst experience of his life, Manny found his passion and purpose.
“I want to do what they did for me – help save someone’s child, the way they helped me,” says Manny.
Today, Manny is studying respiratory therapy at Valencia College – where most of his Arnold Palmer Hospital mentors received their training – and will earn his Associate in Science degree in the summer of 2016. Although he works 25 to 30 hours a week on construction sites to help support his family, Manny has maintained a 3.4 GPA. After graduating with his A.S. degree, he plans to get a job and work on his bachelor’s degree in respiratory care through Valencia’s online program. Meanwhile, he also wants to take some classes so he can specialize in pediatric respiratory care.
To honor Manny’s dedication to the field, he was selected as one of five respiratory care students at Valencia to be named a Siemens Technical Scholar. The program will provide Manny with $3,500, to be used to pay for his education or to pay back student loans.
The Siemens Foundation, in conjunction with the Aspen Institute, recognized 29 students around the country whose community college programs are educating students in STEM fields in what they call “middle skills professions.” Valencia’s respiratory care program was selected because 96 percent of its graduates land a job within a year of graduation and earn an average of $22.93 an hour after graduation.
“We’ve got to ensure that students are getting degrees that matter in their lives,” said Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute for College Excellence Program. The colleges selected for the Siemens Scholars awards offered excellent two-year training programs in cardiovascular technology, surgical technology and manufacturing technology, as well as respiratory care. “Where are these strong employment and earnings rates? In fields that have something to do with math, science and technology. These are fields with jobs that are growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy.”
“These jobs provide tremendous economic benefits,” said Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens USA. “Twenty percent of all jobs in the U.S. economy are STEM jobs, yet half of all STEM jobs do not require a 4-year degree and pay on average $54,000 a year. That’s the kind of career pathway that can make a difference in the life of a young adult.”
As for Manny, who’s now 25, the scholarship money will be helpful as he works to pay down his student loans. And one day, he hopes to become a physician’s assistant – which is remarkable for someone whose high-school biology teacher told him that she didn’t think he should study health sciences.
“Life has a funny way of working out,” says Manny. ” I never thought I was going to be a health-care provider. Through the hurdles we have, life will happen… and you will figure out what you want to do with your life.”