The federal VA is trying to cut down the amount of time veterans are left waiting for care by hiring more health care professionals. For former service members, working at the VA may not be a tough sell.
Jose Burgos knew during college that he wanted to be a doctor. He went to Texas A&M on an Air Force scholarship where he studied bio-medical science and pre-med. After graduation, he was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. But when it was time for him to pick a specialty or job in the military, Burgos said he decided to try something different.
"So I saw on a list, Aircraft and Munitions Maintenance, and I was like, that sounds awesome!" Burgos said. "So I checked that off. I had never turned a wrench in my life until that point, so for me, it was a big culture shock going from medicine to a world full of mechanics."
Burgos became an Aircraft Maintenance Officer overseeing crews that worked on aircraft like the Strike Eagle and later, the F-22 Raptor. He enjoyed the work but medicine was still his passion. There were several moments during his deployment in Afghanistan when he strongly felt that desire to take care of people.
Burgos recalled one time when he went to the clinic on base to pick up medication. "The emergency entrance was the only one that was open and there was backboards there stained in blood, and pictures on the wall at that hospital of people who had passed away. And I remember feeling like that's my calling," he said.
His six-month deployment to Afghanistan ended in the spring of 2011. His plan was to continue his Air Force career, but he began experiencing several health issues, and was eventually diagnosed with thyroid cancer, leading him to be medically retired from the service last year. Burgos recovered, and that's when he thought: now's the time to follow his dream. In just a few months, he was enrolled at Quinnipiac.
"I get to wear what I want, I get to wear a beard. I get to see my wife when I go home!" Burgos said.
Burgos's training isn't limited to sitting in class. Once a week, he makes the long drive to a pediatrics practice in Torrington.
Dr. Jessica Magda is mentoring Burgos. On one day recently, he watched as she examined a six-week-old baby.
"His lungs sounded clear to me," said Burgos.
"His lungs sounded good, and he didn't have a lot of nasal congestion," said Magda.
Magda said Burgos's military experience makes him stand out among other medical students. "It's not a common trajectory," she said. "I think having leadership skills being so important in medicine, and how much of that he would have gotten in military training. A lot of people coming out of college directly, or maybe taking a year or two off to do research, don't have that kind of experience."
Burgos isn't the only veteran in his class.
Frank Ruiz served in the U.S. Navy starting out as a coordinator of a flight deck squadron, and later moving into supportive teams. He was deployed three times between 2003 and 2007, once to Iraq. The other two tours were in Afghanistan.
During those deployments, Ruiz endured traumatic brain injuries. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "So I ended up in and out of the VA quite a bit," he said, "from '08 to '09, and part of '10. I ended up laying in the hospital."
While there, Ruiz first started thinking about his next career.
"I got to know just a lot of medical professionals around me," Ruiz said. "In a couple of days, some light bulbs started going off, and I was just like, hey, I can run around, solve problems, and do this fast. Maybe I can do what they do."
Ruiz credits two VA staff members back in Colorado with helping him get through the tough times, and keeping him on track with a plan to enter medical school. Now, he's thinking about specializing in psychiatry, and he said he's open to working in the VA health care system.
"Maybe because of my past, I might be able to help others that are going through similar things that I went through," Ruiz said. "So I certainly would consider psychiatry, or anything else with the VA."
Burgos and Ruiz study together often. Burgos said he admires his friend who he calls a role model.
"Frank's amazing," Burgos said. "He literally works through his weaknesses." Their experiences have been different, but both men said it's the skills they learned while in the service and how they responded to their individual struggles that brought both of them to where they are now.
Burgos said every veteran has that potential. "Everybody goes through a different situation when they get out," he said. "Some have a larger load to carry then others. I would say: get better, heal yourself, adjust -- but don't every forget about who you were and what you wanted out of life. And it's sad. We see a lot of veterans that don't have those networks and bad things happen."
That's one of the reasons why they're sharing their knowledge with their civilian colleagues. Both men helped form the Military Medical Interest Group at Quinnipiac Medical School. They're helping their classmates get exposure to former service members so they understand what they're going through.
The need is important. These physicians in training will see many patients in their careers including veterans.