Joseph Espero wants to be the Black Panther of pediatric physical therapy, superhero costume and all.

Espero is currently enrolled in the university’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program after completing his undergraduate degree in exercise science in 2020. His goal is to help children dealing with cancer or neurodevelopmental issues – those not living the life every kid should.

Often these young patients are intimidated by the professional adults around them and tired of the pain. With his own perfectly healthy baby at home, Espero isn’t sure he’ll be able to handle the emotional side of the job, but he sure wants to try.

Through his future vocation, Espero plans to fulfill his calling: to give young children – and particularly kids of color – a voice.

“You know how cool it would be for a kid to look up and see the Black Panther walk in? They get to say, ‘That’s who I’m doing exercises with today.’”

“I have a desire to be a PT, especially for the under-spoken population,” he says. In the same way that actor Chadwick Boseman, as the Black Panther, changed how people of color see themselves, Espero wants to change how kids in therapy view themselves.

“I want to show kids of color this is what we look like. Not all providers do the same thing, and you don’t have to be like everyone out there.”

Espero is concerned about kids without financial resources, too. “I know what it’s like to not have much,” he says. “Kids with the Oregon Health Plan don’t have a choice in providers, who see whatever person is on their schedule.” Just as some kids can’t learn from certain teachers, they can struggle with medical providers, too. “It’s not because the child is incompetent; it’s because the provider is not willing to adapt their way of teaching.”

Espero wants to be a provider who is willing to adapt for a child and encourage them to say what they’re feeling.

“You see these doctors and you’re intimidated because they know 10 times more than you do,” he says. “But doctors don’t know what it’s like to be in your position. They don’t have that perspective.”

An elderly woman at a nursing home in Beaverton, Oregon, first piqued Espero’s interest in physical therapy during high school. A stroke had weakened one side of her body. Espero met her as he shadowed a physical therapist working with her.

“I remember seeing her almost daily, developing a rapport with her, seeing her progress and what the PT did with her,” he says. “She was able to regain left hand mobility – something so small but so essential. I saw this look of disbelief cross her face. That was amazing to me. You can have an impact on people’s lives. You don’t see them just once; you see it through. That’s what’s really special to me.”

Espero dresssed as Black Panther, his arms crossed across his chest

Espero dressed up as the Black Panther for Halloween

Espero had his own experience with a physical therapist several years ago, after herniating a couple of disks in his back and losing sensory and motor function in his left foot. “She saw me once and gave me outdated exercises and information,” he recalls of his experience.

He wants to be a different kind of PT – someone who continues to read the latest research in order to provide the best care. “If you don’t do that, you get left behind and have medical care that doesn’t do anything.”

The best doctors, Espero believes, combine their knowledge with humility and a determination to continually learn. “It’s honestly not by my hands; it’s by the patient’s hands. They have all the tools to get better; I’m just the mediator.”

And while he’s helping their bodies, Espero hopes he’s opening their minds to life’s possibilities.

“The most important thing for me is that my child wants to be something of her own. I hope I give her the strength and the knowledge that she can do anything – doctor, politics – if she works hard enough. And my impact goes even further for the children I see, so they can do the same thing. It’s my vocation. That’s why God put me here – so I can spread hope to other people.”