As a boy, Paul Jones wanted to be a doctor.
But by the time he entered high school, his family had abandoned him and he was bounced around from home to home.
Cancer threatened to take his life three times before he graduated college. It nearly killed his career drive.
As he faced his last surgery, his mind was shutting down and he thought he was going to die.
He credits the Georgia Sheriffs' Association's Boys' Ranch with saving his life and helping him hone his dream.
The 27-year-old Jones is now enrolled at Mercer University's School of Medicine in Macon.
"I don't know what true love from a parent can be, but it couldn't be more than what I got (at the ranch)," Jones said. "They are my family out there."
Sunday, as he joined nearly 60 classmates at the School of Medicine's White Coat Ceremony, a contingent from the Georgia Sheriffs' Association Youth Homes watched as Jones officially launched his mission to become a doctor.
Beth Tillman, who counseled Jones when he first arrived at the Hahira ranch in south Georgia, has been waiting for this day for years.
"I want to tear up every time I talk about it," said Tillman, who is now the child-care director for the homes.
She has every right to be proud. Her "son" is going to be a doctor.
During the ceremony, Dr. Jeffrey L. Stephens, an infectious disease researcher who teaches internal medicine at Mercer, gave the students their first lesson in compassion.
From Jones' experience with deadly illness, it was a lesson he's already mastered.
He put on his white coat and picked up his "humanism in medicine" pin.
But Jones hopes his patients look beyond both of those to the scar that stretches across his neck from ear to ear.
"I think it's right there on my neck for a reason. I'm not ashamed of it," Jones said. "It's like a badge of honor. I survived it."
He thought about having more surgery to make it less noticeable, but changed his mind, he said, because he wants his patients to know he can empathize with their pain and suffering.
It traces his road to wellness through the initial biopsy and trio of surgeries.
At the beginning of his sophomore year at Valdosta State University, he noticed a lump on the left side of his neck.
Doctors removed his cancerous thyroid and he began radiation therapy.
He couldn't take thyroid medicine during the six-week course of the treatments and his body functions slowed, he said.
He remembers feeling chilled down to the bone, never able to get warm.
Sleep dominated his life, sometimes he stayed awake only six hours a day.
It was hard to get his brain going again after he went back to school, he said.
By the time his body recovered, the lump was back.
Doctors removed the lymph nodes from the left side of his neck, only to do the same a year later on his right side when the cancer returned a third time.
"I'll admit that got me," Jones said. "That was a time that really brought me to my knees."
The girl he met and fell in love with six weeks before his diagnosis was leaving him. His mind was slipping. He was forgetting things.
He lay in his bed thinking his life was over.
"The last time, it kept taking away deep wells of my reserve," Jones said. "In the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'Why bother,' but the boys' ranch gave me a purpose."
He began soul searching and earnestly praying.
During his bouts with cancer, sheriffs from all over the state sent cards. He keeps a box full of them.
While the radiation stopped the cancer, the love he was feeling at the ranch burned away his despair. "I don't know if I'd even be alive today without them," Jones said.
As he recovered by the lake on the ranch's campus, he rediscovered his quest to be a doctor.
When he became a ward of the state, he toyed with the idea of studying law to help other children discarded during times of family stress.
But now it seemed clear. Medicine was his calling.
When he got back to school, he changed his major to pre-med.
His first biology class sharpened his mind long-dulled by recurring illness.
"This is a miracle. Not only did I beat it, but I'm actually here starting my career in medicine," Jones said last week in the elegant round room in the medical school library.
His story resonated during the admissions process and he was accepted on his second application.
"Even when faced with adversity in his life, he has excelled both academically and personally, always working toward his goal to be a physician so he can give back to his community," said Dr. Ann C. Jobe, dean of the School of Medicine.
It's Mercer's mission to train men and women who will seek out the underserved communities in the state of Georgia.
Nothing would keep Jones from going back to help those children at the ranch.
He remembers what it was like to feel unwanted.
"It really is difficult to get over that. It really scars you for life," Jones said. "People take for granted how important that love is."
Jones has felt love from all across the state - from the people who cared for him, to the thousands of others who contributed money to the youth homes.
Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena knows his jail is full of people with troubled pasts.
He's extremely proud of the work the Georgia Sheriffs' Association has done since founding the first of six campuses in 1959.
"We took kids who were at the end of the line and had no where to go," Modena said.
Though Jones doesn't like to talk about his past, he seems to have an inner peace about his life apart from his parents, brother and sister.
"There's a lot of bad things about growing up like I did, but there's a lot of good things about the ranch. I have 48 brothers now," Jones said. "Looking back, I really feel that everything has a purpose and I think my purpose is to look out for the ranch. I honestly believe it's the hand of the Lord that brought me here."
And with that sense of divine purpose comes his desire to give back.
He'll be helping heal physical hurts and emotional scars as he plans to set up a family practice in Hahira and provide free medical care back on the ranch.
"But in my whole life, I could never repay what they've given me."