The year was 1988, and deep past the greenery of Quezon City in the Philippines, a young sailor and his wife prepared for the journey of their lives. Along with their four year old son, they would leave Quezon and cross the pacific ocean to start a new life in America.
The journey promised them nothing, as only two things were certain: the trip would be costly, and the threat of danger would spare neither them nor their four year old son Nelson.
Still, their hearts were set. In February of that year, the Poliran family left their native land for a new home in Los Angeles, California.
“As a sailor, my father traveled from port to port around the world,” Nelson tells me over coffee in Grand Park. This, he explains, played no small role in his father’s determination to leave the Philippines for the States, despite not having any kin or friends there.
Similarly, he shares, his mother had no one in America save for her husband and Nelson himself.
Two decades later, as a twenty-five year old medical student, Nelson recognizes his parents’ bravery, but he also traces the roots of their adventurous spirit to a time even beyond theirs.
“My grandfather,” he shares –on his mother’s side– “was a Master sergeant in the Philippine Army.”
Nelson got to meet and speak to Sergeant Andres Sta Ana just once in the summer of 2008–when he traveled back to Quezon for the first time since leaving. The one time experience left a life-changing impression on him.
“I could tell that he was a loving, caring person, but also really tough…like my mom!” he says over a laugh.
The next year when Nelson’s grandfather passed away, the Philippine army gave the Sergeant an honorary funeral, with Nelson’s mom in attendance. By then, Nelson had a stronger sense of where he wanted to go with his life.
Following his trip to Quezon, upon returning to the U.S. he decided that like his father and grandfather before him, he would train to serve his country. In 2009, though he was already enrolled at Pasadena City College, Nelson added to his schedule training with the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at Loyola Marymount University.
Naturally, one wouldn’t expect a life between studying biology and training as a cadet to be a stroll in the park, but the two experiences came together rather well for Nelson; he went to school four days a week, and hit ROTC on Fridays from 9 am until the evening.
While some days training lasted until midnight for Nelson due to extracurricular responsibilities he held with the program, he treasured it all the same. In addition to gaining skills for the Air Force as an ROTC member, he also learned the invaluable asset of time management through the experience; though, if you knew him at the time, he might have said he was just learning how to go on a great adventure.
Little would he have known, however, just how much adventure was actually in store for him.
By the Fall of 2011, Nelson completed his ROTC training and transferred from Pasadena to UC Riverside, where he resolved that rather than just finishing his degree there, he’d leave a mark at the university.
He started with the Global Public Health Brigades club, which is otherwise known as “the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization.”
Almost instantly, the ROTC skills which Nelson gained at Loyola came in handy, quickly making an impression on the team; he was reliable, efficient, and ready to go wherever the team needed him. It was a succinct match. The following summer in 2012, when the Brigades needed some volunteers for their public health mission in Honduras, Nelson was in.
The mission to Honduras lasted a week, and was designed to work specifically with rural communities at their homes in the countryside of the nation, within a town called El Canton. While there, the team helped the locals with infrastructure, clean water surfaces, eco-stoves, latrines, and proper sanitation training.
Nelson loved the experience, and though he knew very little Spanish, he actually noted the language differences weren’t as intimidating as the bond between the families there; in particular, “the brothers there were really close,” he tells me, and this made him a bit less than confident about finding a place with them.
But after a couple of days of working, laughing, and playing through the lush greenery of El Jute together, Nelson found himself complimented with the honorary title of un hermano by the locals.
When the week in El Jute came to an end, it was difficult for Nelson to say goodbye to his new familia, but he vowed to go back to find more hermanos again.
Just a couple of months after the mission in the Fall of 2012, he’d have the opportunity to do so, when he was elected president of the Global Public Health Brigades at UC Riverside! The following year in the summer of 2013, Nelson led a second group of UCR students to Honduras.
By then, he felt that even while he wasn’t in the military, he was still honoring the memory of his grandfather.
“In leading the team,” he tells me, “I felt like I was finally looking back at him.”
In addition to leading the UCR brigades to glory, 2013 was also a major year for Nelson because of a few more opportunities. First, in January, Nelson’s research proposal was accepted to Harvard University for a presentation at their university’s annual National Collegiate Research Conference. And later that year, a few months after graduating from UCR Nelson was accepted as an intern at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California.
Both experiences led to yet more eye-opening discoveries for him, but I can vouch first-hand for Nelson’s excitement at standing alongside surgeons in an ER room during a procedure. On more than one occasion, he’d blaze in through the door at my apartment in Davis(!) with shock in his eyes and urgency in his voice:
“Dude! You won’t believe what I just went through today!”
Of course, by then I could definitely believe it. Nelson was doing what he’d always been: going after the big fish and coming back with an awesome story to share about it.
Today, as a direct result of the internship in Sacramento, Nelson has resolved that surgery is where he wants to go next.
“It’s going to be tough; it’s competitive!” he tells me.
But somehow, I trust my friend’s got a great track record and spirit for it.
When Nelson isn’t out trailblazing, he enjoys hiking, photography, and exploring the depths of California. And if you’d like to learn more about ROTC, how to get involved at UCR, or Nelson’s experience with surgery, he’d be happy to share! Like his father and grandfather in the Philippines before him, he’s not just a an adventurous spirit, but one that’s happy to share that spirit with others.