Perry Ortiz doesn’t remember having a seizure in 2016. Or being rushed to an operating room, where doctors confirmed Perry — a security supervisor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) — had stage 2 testicular cancer.
His only recollection of that day six years ago is waking up in a hospital bed — his family on one side; his colleagues from MSK Security on the other.
“Ever since that moment, I have been determined to be the best security guard MSK has ever had,” says Perry.
A Man Who Earned His Stripes
Speak to Perry for any length of time, and the words “honor,” “allegiance,” and “loyalty” pepper the conversation. It’s no surprise, as Perry served in the U.S. Army for 17 years, attaining the rank of sergeant.
“Military service runs in our blood,” says Perry, noting that his dad fought in the Korean War and his older brother served as an infantryman during the Vietnam War. Perry’s daughter, Emily, recently completed active duty in the U.S. Air Force.
Then there is Perry’s uncle, José Torres, who joined the Army’s boxing team on a whim — a decision that changed the trajectory of his life. José was still in the Army when he won the silver medal in the light middleweight division at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Later on, José became the third Puerto Rican world boxing champion in history and the first Latin American to win the World Light Heavyweight Title.
“My uncle was a great inspiration to me and thousands of Puerto Ricans,” says Perry. “He believed that you never give up, even when you think the odds are impossible to beat. That spirit pushed me throughout my life, especially when I was diagnosed with cancer.”
After completing his military service in 1993, Perry joined the private sector. He worked security for a number of retailers before joining MSK as a security officer in 2010.
“I could tell immediately that MSK was a wonderful place,” Perry says. “From day one, I was proud to work here. I knew I wanted to stay at MSK for the rest of my working days.”
That pride drove Perry to grow personally, take on new challenges, and advance his career. In his current role as security supervisor (also called a sergeant), Perry oversees a team of guards, all of whom help keep MSK’s patients, staff, and visitors safe. “My goal is to serve and protect anyone who walks through MSK’s doors,” he says.
Safeguarding MSK and its people is only part of Perry’s job description, he notes. For him, the job is personal.
“As a former cancer patient, I understand what many people here are going through. I feel what they feel. So I smile, look them in the eyes, and try to be a calming, reassuring presence. I try to offer them a sense of security,” he says.
An Outpouring of Support at MSK
Perry was stunned when he received a diagnosis of testicular cancer. A self-described “health nut,” Perry exercised regularly. He also didn’t have any family history of cancer. When he began to experience swelling and pain in his groin, he made an appointment with his primary physician.
“Even though I worked at MSK, I wasn’t aware of the signs of cancer,” Perry says, adding that he now urges other men to get checked if they have symptoms.
He never made it to the doctor’s office. “I was at work, and I felt a terrible pain in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I called my supervisor, who knew something was wrong because I never complained or took a sick day,” Perry recalls.
Perry was rushed to the emergency room, where a chest X-ray revealed a blood clot in his lower left lung. Blood tests and a physical examination helped doctors determine that Perry had testicular cancer. Doctors recommended surgery, known as a radical orchiectomy, to remove the tumor and one of Perry’s testicles.
While in the ER, Perry suffered a seizure. Once stable, he underwent surgery. Perry awoke to his MSK colleagues. “I remember seeing all their faces,” Perry says. “I can’t put into words what their support meant to me. It still overwhelms me to this day.”
Following his surgery, Perry underwent four months of chemotherapy and is now considered in good health. He goes for annual check-ups.
The Importance of Hispanic Heritage Month
For Perry, whose parents hail from Ponce, Puerto Rico, Hispanic and Latino Heritage Month is another moment to honor his heritage and pay tribute to the many important people in his life.
“I am so honored to be Puerto Rican. It runs in our blood to be proud of who we are and represent our culture well.”
Life has come full circle for Perry. Thirty years after donning sergeant chevrons on his military uniform, he now proudly wears them again — this time as a sergeant at MSK.
“I’m blessed that in my lifetime, I have worn on my collar the chevrons for two different storied institutions,” Perry says. “I find myself in MSK’s debt because my family and my team gave me a reason to live.”