From U-2 Pilot to OB/GYN: A Veteran Reflects on Her Career Path

When Cholene Espinoza, MD SGU ’15, looks back on her childhood, she remembers imperfections and failure.

“I was always kind of a screw-up as a kid,” said Espinoza, chief resident in Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “I started first grade when I was five, so I was always feeling behind and was often put in the corner for being disruptive in class. I was independent and never really fit in to the traditional educational system.”

For years, Espinoza struggled to focus academically and socially, but the summer before seventh grade, she had an epiphany: “I remember telling my mom I didn’t want to be a loser anymore.”

She hasn’t let her mom down. Espinoza’s stellar career and life have played like a Hollywood movie with her roles including—an elite spy plane pilot; a passenger originally scheduled to board one of the ill-fated planes on 9/11; a wartime journalist; a Hurricane Katrina volunteer; a published author and, finally an OB-GYN who has a profound reverence for human life.

As Veterans Day approaches, Espinoza, an Air Force veteran, reflected on the meaning of the day and how her own service changed her life and set her on her path to becoming a physician.

“What is would say to veterans is, ‘thank you. We’ve served together, you kept me safe and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate you in every way,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza’s Military Career Takes Flight

At 17, Espinoza enrolled in the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In the 1980s, when she was a young cadet, the Academy limited female enrollment to just 10 percent of a class. (With those gender restrictions now gone, last year’s freshman class at the Academy was about a quarter female.)

“Like anything in life, there were moments when I struggled, and things or comments happened that shouldn’t have,” she said. “But it taught me to surround myself with supportive, good people and to work through the hardships.”

A Path Discovered

But more hardships were to come. Around Christmas of her sophomore year, Espinoza’s father died. The shock and grief soon led her to an unexpected, but clear path.

“I was taking a course in glider flying and it enabled me to get over my father’s death on some level,” she said. “Flying came natural to me when nothing else in my life had.”

After graduating, Espinoza served as a flying instructor for four years, and later, she was selected as a U-2 spy plane pilot for the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, California–the only U-2 squadron in the world.

U-2 spy planes are single-jet engine, ultra-light gliders that maneuver on the edge of the earth’s atmosphere. Designed to avoid enemy detection, the planes are equipped with sophisticated instrumentation that provides vital intelligence, day or night and in all-weather.

In a 12-hour mission, the aircraft can capture extraordinarily detailed imagery of a country the size of Iraq. And while much about the aircraft remains classified, Espinoza points out the planes do far more than reconnaissance—they also aid in peacekeeping and directing humanitarian aid.

Flying solo missions in U-2 plane can be an otherworldly, almost spiritual experience, said Espinoza. Wrapped in the cocoon of her space gear, she can sometimes still feel the stillness of the open sky and the brilliance of the earth.

“I would fly across Europe all night and it felt as though I could just reach out and touch the stars,” she said.

But along with the beauty came harsh reminders of the chaos on the ground.

“I would fly over beautiful civilizations like France and Germany, but when I made it to my target areas, it would be pitch black,” she said. “Then, I would see a flash of light and know it was a blast, and that meant someone is killing or someone is dying. It always gave me reverence for how fragile human life is and how unjust war is.”

Espinoza observed war from the quiet remove of a spy plane, but with each mission she would feel a stronger urge to assist those affected on the ground.

“I couldn’t directly help people from the stratosphere and that propelled me to eventually get out of the Air Force cockpit,” she said.

From Above 70,000 Feet to 30,000 Feet

Espinoza left the Air Force for a career in commercial flying with United Airlines and then Emirates Airlines–allowing her to travel to every continent except Antarctica.

“As a commercial pilot, I had to be broken of my ‘single pilot mindset’ and not disregard input from others,” said Espinoza. “Success was based on the efficacy and quality of the entire crew.”

Espinoza was working for United Airlines on September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four aircrafts and slammed two of them into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the fourth in a Pennsylvania countryside.

She was not scheduled to fly the fourth plane hijacked that day, but was supposed to be a passenger. The flight boarded in Newark, and was supposed to land in San Francisco. It never made it.

“I was living in New York City at the time and had just accepted a bid to be a captain out of San Francisco,” said Espinoza. “I planned to take the flight as a passenger to find a new home in San Francisco, but the crew desk realized I had gone over my flight limitation hours, so the first leg of my trip was cancelled and I wasn’t on Flight 93.”

Espinoza’s United Airlines colleague and former Academy classmate, Leroy Homer, Jr., was co-piloting the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

“I knew Leroy since I was 17 and had just seen him in London on a layover,” said Espinoza. “He was happier and more content than I’d ever known him to be, showing me pictures of his daughter and wife. I often think of him that day in Hyde Park, with his smile, wishing I’d been there for him on that flight.”

Espinoza’s Service Shifts from Sky to Ground

The events of 9/11 soon led her to take a pair of three-month leave from United Airlines to cover the Iraq war as a civilian radio journalist. Her first tour was with the Marine Corps and the second, and third with the Army. Espinoza worked as an embedded journalist for Talk Radio News Service (now Talk Media News), which gave her an opportunity to come face-to-face with war—both its injustice and its heroism.

“I departed Iraq from mobile hospital in Iraq and there were surgeons trying to save children who had limbs blown off from mines and ammunition,” said Espinoza. “The medical teams were trying to make something right out of something so horribly wrong. When you’re in the middle of a war, you see the destruction and insanity of it, and then you see these beautiful acts.”

Espinoza witnessed how war changes people.

“In order for me to overcome what war had done to me, I needed to engage and fix what was broken,” she said. “That’s what inspired me to leave the cockpit for good and directly take care of people by switching careers from pilot and journalist, to doctor.”

But before taking care of people as a doctor, Espinoza’s desire to serve brought her to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

“On our first trip to Mississippi, my spouse and I connected with a small community and fell in love with the people and their struggle,” said Espinoza. “We realized how many people drowned from the storm because they didn’t know how to swim, since there were no community centers or public swimming pools.”

So, the couple made it their mission to change the community’s access to water safety by raising money to build a public swimming pool. Amid rebuilding and spending all of her down time and vacation days on the Gulf Coast, Espinoza penned a novel, Through the Eye of the Storm: A Book Dedicated to Rebuilding What Katrina Washed Away.

“I realized each of us has something to give and that gift is desperately needed in our world,” said Espinoza. “For me, being gay had not stopped me from serving two of my greatest loves in life, God and country. This book is the story of my life, the lives of truly heroic Americans and the transformation of my spirit that took place unexpectedly in this small Mississippi town.”

The proceeds raised from the book, which she wrote and published in less than one year, supported the rebuilding of one of the most hurricane-ravaged communities on the Gulf Coast. The writing process helped Espinoza accept herself completely.

“It wasn’t until I was out of the service that I wrestled with my own identity,” said Espinoza. “In the service, I didn’t have relationships with women, I focused on flying. I had tried to deny that part of who I was but realized through the writing and humanitarian process a stronger desire to live authentically.”

Becoming a Doctor: Her Final Mission

In 2009, after what many would consider an already fulfilling and long career, Espinoza started her journey of becoming a doctor. Then 45 years-old, Espinoza started over with pre-med and then graduated from St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada, West Indies at the age of 50.

“I have the distinction of starting menopause and residency at the same time,” Espinoza jokes.

Espinoza started her residency training in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cedars-Sinai in June 2015 and is scheduled to finish this coming June. She has been accepted to be re-commissioned into the military as a Reserve U.S. Army OB-GYN. She can be deployed to any medical surgical unit, nationally or internationally.

“Military medicine is what first inspired me, but I thought I was too old for the military,” said Espinoza. “But they desperately need doctors.”

While she’s not serving on Reserve duty, Espinoza plans to work in South Sudan, a struggling country where she has been working and traveling for over six years–first being trained by the South Sudanese when she was a medical student–not teaching and practicing as a doctor.

“With each trip, I can do more, because I’ve learned more here at Cedars-Sinai.”

Above all, residency has been the challenge of her lifetime.

“With medicine and obstetrics specifically, there are no permissible errors,” said Espinoza. “It’s the same as flying jets–there is a certain level of intensity and desire to execute perfection, which drives and motivates me to work harder every single day.”

But, as Espinoza knows, whether in war or in medicine, mistakes are inevitable.

“I start each day with a sense of humility and respect for human life and for people across all socioeconomic levels,” she said. “That humility comes from seeing a lot of bad things happen and knowing I, too, have made mistakes. But every day is an opportunity to try to do better, let go and forgive ourselves.”

And at a time in her life when many people would be slowing down, Espinoza is relishing her uncharted journey ahead.

“I have been blessed with a rich life and experiences, but without question–the most magical, beautiful thing I have ever experienced in my life or career is being in the room when a baby is born,” she said. “Any pain, loss, or hurt parents may have previously felt evaporates the split second their baby is born. Witnessing and participating in birth is the privilege of a lifetime.”

This story, video and photos originally appeared on the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center website. They have been published here with permission from Cedars-Sinai.

SGU Grad on Dr. Oz: New FDA-Approved Drug Limits Migraines

Shivang Joshi, MD/MPH SGU ’08, appeared on FOX’s “Dr. Oz” show on October 26 to explain how clinical trials of the drug Emgality—recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration—have shown a drastic reduction of migraine frequency in patients. In one study, he explained that 1 in 7 patients with Emgality were migraine-free for a month, versus 1 in 16 for those using a placebo.

View the entire segment by visiting the Dr. Oz website.

Dr. Joshi came to SGU from St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions. He earned his Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health at SGU before going on to complete a neurology residency at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. He then completed a fellowship in headache medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s John R. Graham Headache Center, while also serving as an instructor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School.

Olds: The Fix to Texas’ Doctor Shortage Lies Abroad

In the Austin American-Statesman, Dr. G. Richard Olds, President of St. George’s University, explained how international medical schools can be the answer to the physician shortage in Texas, a shortage that could reach 6,000 doctors by 2030.

“Doctors trained abroad can help fill the gap,” Dr. Olds wrote. “They already treat millions of patients across the Lone Star State. And many of them are actually U.S. citizens who chose to study overseas—and then return home to practice.”

St. George’s University has graduated more than 16,000 physicians who have gone on to practice in all 50 US states, as well as more than 50 countries worldwide. Thirty-four SGU graduates began their residencies in Texas this summer, joining fields that included surgery, anesthesiology, and emergency medicine, as well as primary care specialties such as family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics.

Read the entire editorial on the American-Statesman website.

 

MD Grad Returns to Her Roots

St. George’s University graduate Jennifer Favre started as a bookkeeper at East End Pediatrics when she was just a college student. Twelve years later, with a medical degree to her credit, Dr. Favre has rejoined the practice, working alongside her mentor who helped her begin working toward her dream of becoming a physician.

“Gail has always advised all of her patients that this is their medical home,” Dr. Favre said of the practice owner, Dr. Gail Schonfeld. “You come into the practice, we will take care of you. If you have a question, you get one of four physicians on the phone within a matter of minutes, 24 hours a day. When we’re not here at night, somebody still calls them back. . . . That’s something you can’t find everywhere. And that’s the kind of medicine I want to practice.”

Read more about Dr. Favre by visiting the East Hampton Star website.

SGU Graduate Named Resident of the Month at Marshall University

In July, St. George’s University graduate Thao Wolbert was named Resident of the Month by Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

On MU’s Twitter account, it was noted that “patients and every member of her clinical care team raved about Dr. Thao Wolbert’s bedside manner and knowledge of the human body, surgery and the disease process.” Dr. Wolbert is in the third year of a five-year surgery residency at MU, and is currently applying for plastic surgery fellowships.

Read the full story here.

Dr. Olds Discusses US Doctor Shortage on WUSA 9 in Washington, DC

Dr. G. Richard Olds, President of St. George’s University, visited with WUSA 9 in Washington, DC, to discuss the primary care doctor shortage facing the United States.

“There’s a general shortage of physicians because we don’t produce enough doctors in the US for our needs. Remember that we’re a growing country, but from a doctors’ standpoint, we’re an aging country, and when you get over 70 years of age, your need for physicians goes up astronomically.

“The primary care problem is that 30 percent of graduates of US medical schools go into primary care and the rest specialize. We need more than half of them to go into primary care. This primary care shortage is going to get considerably worse as the next decade rolls out.”

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the nation will be short up to 50,000 primary care doctors by 2030.

Health Education England and St. George’s University Reach Agreement on New Program to Fill Postgraduate Medical Training Programs in England

Dr. G. Richard Olds, President of St. George’s University (left), and Professor Ian Cumming, Chief Executive of Health Education England, sign a Memorandum of Understanding that will allow SGU graduates to undertake postgraduate training in England through the NHS’ Widening Access to Specialty Training program.

At a ceremony in Grenada, leaders of Health Education England (HEE), part of the National Health Service (NHS), and St. George’s University signed a Memorandum of Understanding to enable SGU School of Medicine graduates to undertake postgraduate training in England, with the first intake expected in the autumn of 2018. SGU School of Medicine is the only Caribbean medical school in a direct agreement with Health Education England for the first 18-month program to provide graduates for postgraduate training. The agreement is expected to facilitate 50-100 trainees annually from SGU School of Medicine entering the NHS in England.

This agreement establishes a pathway for a significant number of SGU School of Medicine graduates to join the Widening Access to Specialty Training (WAST) Program, an initiative within NHS that recruits overseas postgraduate doctors, with a focus on ensuring they are able to enter general practice and psychiatry training programs, the expansion of both specialties being a key priority for the NHS. Sixteen SGU graduates will begin WAST in the next seven months, with many more in the application process.

Graduates will undertake one or two postgraduate foundation years, depending on prior experience, followed by entry into specialty training. This postgraduate training is recognized for licensure and given credit in the UK, the European Union, and Commonwealth countries.

“Our role is to ensure the health workforce in England can meet the challenges faced by the NHS, which includes the provision of services in underserved areas,” said Professor Ian Cumming, Chief Executive of Health Education England. “We are very impressed that graduates provided by SGU are of the high standard demanded by the NHS; I look forward to the first intake arriving in 2018.”

St. George’s University has graduated more than 16,000 physicians who have gone on to practice medicine throughout the world.

HEE Director of Global Engagement Ged Byrne added, “St. George’s students are well qualified and talented. We anticipate they will have great success in our postgraduate training programs and in practice in the UK afterwards.”

“This agreement highlights the increasingly important role played by SGU as an international institution in global health care,” said Dr. G. Richard Olds, President of SGU. “Our extensive network of partner universities and teaching hospitals around the world, including in England, ensures our students receive a comprehensive education in a range of clinical environments. This is reflected in the fact that we are the only Caribbean medical school to enter into an agreement with HEE, enabling our graduates to apply for the WAST program. England has one of the most stringent regulatory frameworks in the world, and that our graduates now have this opportunity is reflective of their caliber. We are delighted that this major development has taken place in the 70th anniversary year of the NHS.”

With intakes in February and August each year, most successful applicants will join a one-year postgraduate foundation clinical course in England, where they will improve the skills and competencies required for admission to specialty training. The program will typically consist of six months of psychiatry training followed by six months in an acute hospital setting. Upon completing the program, graduates will be eligible to apply for an Alternative Certificate of Foundation Competencies, after which they can apply for a three-year program of specialty training in England.

Commenting on the importance of the agreement for SGU in the UK, Rodney Croft, Dean of Clinical Studies, UK, said, “I am delighted that St. George’s medical graduates, some of whom have received clinical training in our 17 NHS affiliated hospitals in England, will now have the opportunity to return to England to practice—thereby helping to offset the numerical and specialty shortage of doctors we are presently experiencing.”

The location of training for those on the WAST program will be assigned by HEE, with most programs focusing on areas of acute shortage, predominantly in the Midlands, East, North and South West of England, Yorkshire, and the Humber. Successful applicants will be offered their highest available location preference.

“One of our central aims is to find ways to train doctors in the areas they are needed most,” said Dr. Olds. “The global shortage of medical professionals is exacerbated by maldistribution, both by geography and specialty. This agreement, which will encourage our graduates to train in family medicine and psychiatry in areas of England with the greatest need, is one example of how we are making a significant positive impact around the world.”

Renowned Horse Owner on SGU MD Alumnus: He “Saved My Life”

Bloodhorse.com, one of the racing industry’s leaders in covering horse racing and breeding, told the story of how horse owner Robert LaPenta was hospitalized with a rare disease back in March. That’s when St. George’s University graduate Peter Saikali, MD SGU ’15, intervened. Then an internal medicine resident at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, Dr. Saikali suspected that Mr. LaPenta had contracted Legionnaires’ disease.

“You read about treatments for pneumonia and viruses, but if they don’t know which exact bacteria to give you, you are in serious trouble,” Mr. LaPenta said. “It was this really smart young doctor, Dr. Saikali, who saved my life. Thank God for his diagnosis. … I was about five hours from lights out.”

Mr. LaPenta said that he will honor Dr. Saikali’s heroic efforts by naming one of his 2-year-old horses after him.

Read more about Mr. LaPenta’s treatment on bloodhorse.com.

St. George’s University and Fairleigh Dickinson University Launch Medical Education Partnership

St. George’s University has announced a new partnership with Fairleigh Dickinson University that will give qualified FDU students an expedited enrollment path into the School of Medicine at SGU.

“We are delighted to welcome Fairleigh Dickinson’s best and brightest to St. George’s University so that they can pursue their dreams of becoming doctors,” said Dr. G. Richard Olds, President of St. George’s University.

Fairleigh Dickinson students will be eligible to apply for admission to the medical and veterinary schools at St. George’s University if they complete their undergraduate courses with a minimum cumulative 3.4 GPA and attain an MCAT score within five points of the average among SGU matriculants the previous term. Fairleigh Dickinson undergrads who have completed a minimum of 30 credits and met SGU’s admissions standards will be invited to interview.

Fairleigh Dickinson students seeking entry to the program will also have the opportunity to study abroad at St. George’s University during their undergraduate senior fall. They’ll be exposed to a wide range of science coursework and nursing clinical experience, be able to interact with SGU faculty and students, and experience a taste of life in Grenada.

Participants in the program will then either return to Fairleigh Dickinson to complete their degree or remain at St. George’s University to begin their medical or veterinary education with the January class. Those who opt for the latter will receive their bachelor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson after completing their first medical or veterinary school term.

Fairleigh Dickinson joins a network of schools spanning 12 countries that have established similar partnerships with SGU, including 18 others in the United States.

“Our new partnership offers Fairleigh Dickinson students a unique opportunity to fast-track their entry into the physician workforce by working on their undergraduate and graduate medical degrees simultaneously,” Dr. Olds said.

Grenada Named “Destination of the Year” by Caribbean Journal

The sun rises over Grenada’s capital city of St. George’s.

Caribbean Journal has named Grenada as its 2017 Caribbean Destination of the Year, calling the Spice Isle “one of the region’s hottest places to visit.”

The Journal credited Grenada’s booming hotel development and a certain “x-factor” for earning its top billing in 2017. Visit caribbeanjournal.com to read more about the distinction and other travel award selections.

It is only the latest recognition for the island. In 2012, the Spice Isle took home two of Scuba Diving Magazine Reader’s Choice awards, finishing first in the Caribbean/Atlantic region in the “Advanced Diving” and “Wreck Diving” categories. A year later, National Geographic Traveler listed Grenada as one of its 20 “must-see places” to visit, calling its capital, St. George’s, “one of the prettiest towns in the Caribbean.”

Since 2008, Grenada has warmly welcomed thousands of visitors for St. George’s University bi-annual Family Weekend festivities, during which students’ families and friends get an insider’s look into life as an SGU student, learning about all that the campus and island have to offer.