NEWS | Feb. 8, 2021

RESILIENCE IN RESERVE - Navy Medical Officer Gives Back, But Never Gives Up 

By Chief Mass Communication Specialist Scott Wichmann

A graphic for the feature story on Ensign Fernando Gonzalez.
SLIDESHOW | 2 images | 210208-N-YU482-0001 Ensign Fernando Gonzalez's journey to become a Navy Reserve medical officer proved challenging from the very beginning — a test of his character and perseverance he would ultimately win with the mantra, "Never give up. Never forget where you came from. And never forget you represent the United States Navy." Navy photo illustration by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Stephen Hickok.

After spending years crafting a flawless application package which no military service academy could ignore, Fernando Gonzalez was ready to step into the arena — more than anyone else he knew. 
 
A top-tier athlete in both football and track and field, Gonzalez was in the best shape of his life. His grades were stellar. His community service and volunteering credentials were impeccable. 
 
He collected mountains of personal paperwork, from his birth certificate to his inoculation records to his old report cards; filled out the seemingly endless forms and met all the deadlines; aced the SATs and the ACTs; procured all the requisite letters of recommendation; he even tackled the hardest part — securing a formal nomination from a sitting U.S. congressman. 

But when the U.S. Air Force Academy found a reference to childhood seizures buried in his medical records, years of forward momentum and planning ground to a sudden and perplexing halt. 

 
During a six-year pivot, Gonzalez walked along a road filled with new challenges, setbacks and obstacles, ultimately leading him to the doorstep of the U.S. Navy Reserve. 
 
Gonzalez was raised by his mother, a university Spanish teacher, and his father, a San Diego-based engineer whose work responsibilities required the family to move back and forth between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. 
 
The second of four children, Gonzalez spent his adolescence absorbing and appreciating the cultural and linguistic differences between two different countries while simultaneously playing the protector role for his three siblings. 
 
“Growing up, my older brother Luis was kind of a troublemaker,” said Gonzalez. “So I would have to take care of him and my two younger sisters.” 
 
Gonzalez said his brother’s short-lived rebellious phase soon gave way to a more disciplined and focused outlook, as well as a career in the U.S. Air Force through the service’s academy (USAFA). 
 
It was a path Gonzalez had every intention of following. In fact, the ambitious young man had two different careers mapped out. Once he’d successfully gotten his foot in the door in the USAFA, his next goal was to level up and into the Air Force’s Special Warfare community. After his military career ended, he would use his Post 9/11 G.I. Bill benefits to put himself through medical school and become a doctor.  

But at age 12, Gonzalez had experienced a small cluster of complex partial seizures, a condition causing impaired consciousness in affected individuals, characterized by rapid blinking, lip smacking and a loss of awareness. Complex partial seizures, also called Focal Onset Impaired Awareness Seizures, affect a specific area of the brain in short bursts. Usually caused by everyday triggers such as LED screens or flashing lights, seizures are often common in young people ages 4 to 14. 
 
However common, strict USAFA medical guidelines dictated that, in order to even apply for entrance to the academy, a potential applicant had to prove to be both seizure-free and medication-free for a period of five years. 
 
Despite almost constant daily exposure to traditional triggers, six full years without seizures, and medical clearance from a team of top physicians, the answer from the USAFA was still a firm, non-negotiable — No.  

After the stinging rejection, he tried to stay positive. 

“Sometimes the military is black-and-white,” he said. “But at the same time, you have to keep your head up and hope for the best.”  

Despite the setback, Gonzalez’s brother kept urging him to stay focused, assuring him there would be a second chance to make a contribution. As far as Luis was concerned, finding the right fit for his younger brother was just a matter of when, not if.   

“My brother told me, ‘Always be prepared and ready for anything.”’ Gonzalez said.   

A second chance at military service soon came when in 2012 he was accepted to the Citadel Military College of South Carolina, where Gonzalez received a prestigious Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. This time, Gonzalez set his sights on becoming a U.S. Army Green Beret. 
 
Right out of the gate at the Citadel, Gonzalez burst to the head of the pack as one of only two freshmen to qualify for the Army Citadel Ranger Challenge. Billed as the “Varsity sport of Army ROTC,” the contest, an arduous physical and mental competition testing land navigation skills, marksmanship and physical endurance, would further prepare Gonzalez for his chance to earn two highly sought-after Army Airborne Warfare qualifications the following summer.  

Gonzalez was in the midst of preparation for the Ranger Challenge halfway through his freshman year when leadership at the Citadel pulled him aside to tell him a routine review of his application package had revealed a crushing oversight. His childhood seizures disqualified him from receiving the ROTC scholarship.   

While not disqualified from attending the Citadel, he was forced to endure the disheartening revocation of a scholarship that had removed the economic burden of attending the prestigious institution. As an added disappointment, he was still not eligible for military service.  
 
A fired-up Cadet Gonzalez took his medical waiver case before the school, then to ROTC leadership, and eventually before a congressman, but his quest to become a Green Beret had stopped before it started. Meanwhile, a call went up through the Citadel’s alumni network to assist the young man in defraying the cost of tuition, allowing Gonzalez to focus on his studies and complete his four-year degree. 
 
By the time he graduated college, however, Gonzalez was suddenly no longer in need of a military waiver, as he’d now been seizure-free for 10 years and off medication for six, making him fully medically eligible to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. 
 
Almost immediately, Gonzalez’s cell phone was blowing up. The Army did an abrupt about-face and offered to send him to Officer Candidate School (OCS). He also fielded multiple, aggressive recruiting calls from the Marine Corps. 
 
While he pondered his next move, Gonzalez read a series of biographies by Navy and Marine Corps medical professionals. A slow, yet significant shift began to take place in his thinking. 
 
After reading Dr. Richard Jadick’s biography, “On Call in Hell,” detailing a veteran Navy physician’s experiences as a combat surgeon forward-deployed to Iraq, Gonzalez was inspired to become not just a member of the military special operations community, but a medical professional to look after them. He wouldn’t wait to go to medical school — he’d combine two career goals into one. 
 
The third time proved to be the charm, and in July 2019, Gonzalez walked proudly donned the dress whites of an ensign, graduating with class 19040 at U.S. Navy Officer Development School in Newport, Rhode Island.   

Gonzalez applied for and received a Navy Health Professional Scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine in Greenville. 

“All of that adversity and disappointment was a sign to tell me ‘There’s something better ahead for you,”’ Gonzalez said. “There’s so much opportunity in Navy medicine.” 
 
Along with this new opportunity came new challenges: 12 day stretches without a day off, 16 hour rotations, intensive, minutely-detailed syllabuses and long written exams.   

Gonzalez always tried to meet the daily grind of his clinical responsibilities, studies and classes with gratitude and cheerful readiness. 
 
“I’m always thankful because I know how hard the path has been and I know that there are many people who are trying to get where I am,” he said. “As a future physician and leader in this country and the Navy we have a responsibility to mentor others and help them achieve their aspirations — one generation better than the next.” 
 
The Navy Reserve pays for Gonzalez’s education with the expectation that he will pass his classes and pay the Navy back with sustained superior performance during the course of his four year commitment. 
Having graduated ODS and passing his knee-buckling eight-hour Medical Board exam, Gonzalez looks forward to spending summer 2021 performing clinical rotations at U.S. military hospitals. 
 
“Around this time next year, I’ll be headed to Walter Reed, Balboa or Portsmouth,” said Gonzalez. “I’m thankful for this great chance to serve the people serving our country. I wish more people would look into this great opportunity.” 
 
Motivated by the outpouring of support, Gonzalez resolved to use his education to give back to his community. The irrepressible newly-minted 26 year-old Ensign is also leveraging his medical training, problem-solving skills and can-do spirit to bring healthcare screenings to the Hispanic population of his Greenville, South Carolina community. 
 
The primary objective of his ongoing program, run in cooperation with individual healthcare workers and local churches, is to overcome specific obstacles to medical care faced by the Hispanic community and others in Greenville. 
 
Gonzalez identified language, education and transportation as chronic barriers to healthcare, adding that the first and most difficult barrier to overcome is the lack of cultural emphasis on the importance of regular check-ups and proactive health measures. 
 
“As a Hispanic individual, I know that many people in my community don’t really like going to see a doctor,” said Gonzalez. “They don’t make it a priority to get a yearly check-up. For instance, when you turn 50 you’ve got to get a colonoscopy screening, but many don’t because to them, it seems weird.” 
 
Gonzalez regularly tries to dispel such widely-held misconceptions by instilling his patients with the philosophy that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 
 
“Some of the people we provide with health screenings were never taught that preventative medicine is the way to go,” said Gonzalez. “Instead, some of them often wait until the last minute and that’s not what we want to see.” 
 
According to Gonzalez, the overwhelming majority of Greenville’s Hispanic residents work long hours during the week and often share transportation, making midweek medical care visits impractical. The grassroots outreach program is designed to bring medical screenings, information packets and other healthcare resources to anyone who needs it most -- at easily accessible locations -- often on weekends. 
 
“Many of these individuals work from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and don’t really have access to transportation in the middle of the week,” said Gonzalez. “They can’t afford to not get paid for missing those hours to go to the doctor to get a check-up.”   

While working on clinical rotations, Gonzalez discovered no barrier is as critical to conquer as the language barrier when it comes to ensuring positive health outcomes.     

“As I went into my third year and started working in the hospital,” said Gonzalez, “I realized not only were some Hispanic individuals not seeking treatment at the right time, but when they did receive treatment, it wasn’t always effectively communicated to them.” 
 
The current pandemic has exacerbated some existing widespread communication issues.   

 “COVID has prevented interpreters from coming into the hospitals,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of physicians around here that are bilingual, bicultural or who even have the time to break down everything.”   

Currently, Gonzalez is addressing this problem by attempting to create a four-year medical Spanish immersion program at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, with the long-term goal of improving communication between patients and healthcare providers.   

“It would be a program focused on learning a lot of translated medical terminology and then reaching out to clinics with a certified provider,” said Gonzalez. “They’d be able to practice not only their Spanish skills, but their cultural skills, which are two different things. So as the physician develops over the course of four years they can earn their certificate and also earn a lot of valuable experience they can use wherever they go.”   

One of Gonzales’ biggest hopes is the program will pay dividends down the road by equipping medical professionals with the tools to treat a wider swath of the population.  

“The reality is, in the year 2040-2050, one third of the nation will be Hispanic,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you go to Texas or if you go to New York or Boston, you’re going to treat Hispanic people. Having that [experience] under your belt will make you a more competitive asset in anything you do.”   

Gonzalez said he is glad to be able to make a difference in his community and hopes others will join in to make the outreach program even stronger in the coming years.   

“I realize the problem here is a generational problem,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to fix it overnight, but at least I can start something — and, if someone else picks up on it, we can continue to push on it together, and a generation from now it can change.”   

Gearing up for another clinical shift, Gonzalez offered some simple advice for those who are chasing their own aspirations while facing steep obstacles, seeking to make a difference, both in the Navy Reserve community and beyond.    

“Never give up. Never forget where you came from. And never forget you represent the United States Navy.”