Matt Tarazon was brought into the world nearly a month prematurely after doctors realized he had a hole in his heart and problems with both kidneys.
Open-heart surgery performed when he was a baby successfully repaired Tarazon's heart, but he has spent his entire life monitoring his kidneys to track the effects of hydronephrosis.
This is the last in a three-day series on students who have overcome challenges in their lives and are now graduating from high school.
Monday: Liliy Castillo has overcome a blood clot in her spine — which forever took her ability to walk — to graduate with her class.
Tuesday: Vela Angelle says she will always remember Feb. 7, 2011, as the day her life made a turn for the better.
Today: Matt Tarazon has battled a kidney disease all his life and nearly gave up last year.
Tarazon has an extreme case of the common condition, which causes his kidneys to become stretched or swollen because of a urinary blockage that makes it difficult for the kidneys to drain.
Now 18, Tarazon said the condition of his kidneys has fluctuated for most of his life, but how things play out during the next few years will determine whether he needs a kidney transplant.
When he was 9, Tarazon underwent an extensive surgery to have a catheter inserted to control his kidney drainage.
After the surgery, he remembers, students would make fun of him for taking frequent trips to the school office to drain the catheter, thinking instead that he was being disciplined.
"I just felt excluded from everybody," said Tarazon, who transferred between public and private schools around Medford four times before entering middle school. "I didn't really feel like I belonged."
In middle school, Tarazon came out of his shell, embracing his social side by taking acting classes and practicing making funny voices.
"I've always liked making people laugh," he said.
When he started attending South Medford High School, Tarazon embraced a passion for cooking by taking every culinary class the school offered.
A bright student, Tarazon got good grades the first two years of school, until things took a turn for the worst last year.
Tarazon grew depressed after realizing the severity of his medical problems, and lost all motivation to come to school.
"When he turned 17, it hit him that this disease wasn't going away," said Kimberly Tarazon-Welch, Tarazon's mom. "And a year ago, he just took a dive."
Tarazon-Welch realized that within just a few months, her son had gone from receiving mostly As and Bs to failing most of his classes.
"I didn't have the drive anymore," said Tarazon. "I was giving in."
After talking with the school counselor, Tarazon was diagnosed with depression, and began taking medication to curb the symptoms.
Tarazon was then able to bounce back and complete summer school to make up for the failed courses during his junior year.
Now a year later, despite struggling to make it to school every day, Tarazon has pulled together enough credits to graduate on time.
He will walk with the rest of his class during South Medford High School's commencement Saturday.
"He's had to show a lot of perseverance and dedication to keep up and catch up," said Tisha Richmond, Tarazon's culinary arts instructor. "I'm very proud of him."
Richmond said she taught Tarazon for all three levels of culinary arts instruction and is excited to see what his future holds.
"He's always been very passionate about wanting to learn," said Richmond. "With everything that's been going on with him, he's very optimistic."
Next year, Tarazon plans to attend the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay to take his love of cooking further.
Tarazon's dream is to one day open a seafood restaurant.
"I know what flavors go with seafood, and how to prepare it correctly," said Tarazon, who knew that without receiving his high school diploma, he wouldn't have been able to go on to culinary school.
As part of his senior project on inspirational speaking, Tarazon spoke to students at Griffin Creek Elementary about his struggle to overcome bullying.
"The school was having some problems with bullying and I told them what I had been through," said Tarazon, who fielded questions and had an open discussion with fourth- and fifth-grade students earlier this spring.
Although he was mistreated by some classmates growing up, Tarazon said it was the motivation from others that kept him coming back to school when he lost interest.
"They were supportive. My friends would always ask me if I was coming to school," said Tarazon. "They pushed me."
Tarazon-Welch said that in the end, she was surprised that her son was able to make it to graduation.
"He was very, very behind," she said. "But in the end, he's had a great attitude."
Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.