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Mariah Taylor: Practitioner of Hope

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By Bonnie Darves

Photo: PCC nursing graduate Mariah Taylor treats patient Jessica Bedolla at the Community health clinic she founded 18 years ago to help serve the disadvantaged.

If you call Mariah Taylor and ask her how she’s doing, her response is unequivocal. "I am blessed," she says.

Taylor, director of the North Portland Nurse Practitioner Community Health Clinic, did not always feel that way. Growing up as one of 24 children in a poor Texas family, shackled by the prevailing discrimination of the South, Taylor knew that there was only one way out: education.

Her first step in that journey was receiving her nursing degree from PCC in 1972. "I believe that education is liberation, and when I received that diploma, I knew that I could do something with my life."

Buoyed by her achievement, Taylor went on to earn her bachelor’s degree, then her master’s and, finally, certification as a pediatric nurse practitioner. After graduating from PCC, though, Taylor felt the need to settle an old score from her high school days in Portland, where the family had relocated. That score had to do with Taylor’s English teacher. One day, after Taylor told the woman of her plans to become a nurse, the teacher dashed Taylor’s hopes with a stinging statement. "She told me I couldn’t become a nurse because I was intellectually inferior and because I was black," she recalls.

With her PCC diploma barely dry, Taylor set out to find the teacher, who was by then in a nursing home. But when Taylor actually met the woman face to face, she found her anger had been supplanted by pride. "We actually ended up having a nice conversation," Taylor says.

As often happens, Taylor’s early experiences translated into a personal vision. Hers was to open a clinic to serve people who were in the same socioeconomic strata Taylor, a onetime welfare recipient, had fought so desperately to leave behind. In 1980, Taylor’s vision became reality when she opened the community clinic, a few blocks from PCC’s Cascade campus.

A few years into the venture, other realities set in. There was not enough time in the day, nor adequate resources, to care for the ever-growing number of young patients who showed up on the clinic’s doorstep – children who were sick, hungry and, often, homeless. But Taylor’s commitment to serving the needy meant that no one was ever turned away. The clinic receives funding from United Way and Multnomah County, but sometimes Taylor uses her own money to fill an unmet need – for eyeglasses, clothing or medicines.

Taylor has never wavered from her commitment, which means that most workdays are in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 hours, with weekends devoted to the "mountain of paperwork" her practice entails. In addition to seeing patients, on Thursdays and Fridays Taylor distributes food donated by community businesses, and one room in the cramped clinic stores donated clothing for the many families who need it. And if someone in need shows up after hours, Taylor obliges. "Sure I get burned out sometimes, but there are so many rewards," she says, pointing to a collage of photos – smiling faces of a few hundred of the nearly 16,000 children Taylor has treated over 18 years. She recalls the hot summer day a young boy she had been treating for a while showed up for his regular visit. He walked into the exam room, smiled at her, and opened a clenched fist to reveal two Hershey’s kisses, by then melted, that he had been saving for her. "That’s why I’m here," she says.

Such moments of gratification, however, are frequently punctuated with heart-wrenching ones. Many of Taylor’s patients have been gang members, and many of them have died. "I see so much violence and hatred, and sometimes I think I can’t take it anymore. I can’t even get to all the funerals anymore because there are so many," she says.

Taylor does not let the dark side of human nature deter her, though. She treats all patients, including gang members, with dignity and her trademark maternal touch. She holds their hands and utters the same message she gave herself long ago: "I tell them, ‘you are special. You can do something with your life.’"