Now flying high as a first lieutenant in the Nevada Air National Guard, Caleena Longworth is on her way to realizing her lifelong dream of becoming a physician.
The path wasn't an easy one, but through persistence, Longworth, now 29, found her way. The only female student veteran at the UNLV School of Medicine hopes her story helps others realize obstacles do not have to hold your goals hostage.
“My mom had me her senior year of high school when she was 17 years old,” Longworth said. “I met my biological father one day when I was 12 but he didn’t want to have a relationship. My mom was a single mother for the majority of my life, cutting hair to make a living. In my early childhood, we were evicted from several apartments because what my mom made didn’t cover all the bills. I feel like we moved every couple of months and each time we put our things in storage and moved in with my grandma and grandpa. They lived in a 16-foot-long RV because they had to sell their house to pay for my grandpa’s medical expenses. It was six of us total in the RV. I would sleep on the side of my grandparents’ mattress on the floor with a sleeping bag and blankets. My sister Stacie slept on the floor on the other side. My mom and other sister, Jolene, slept in the little living room part of the RV.”
Both the low-income apartments and RV that she lived in were in a part of town where gang violence was common. After school, Longworth’s mother made her change into black or white clothing so she wouldn’t be mistaken for wearing the colors of a rival gang
The threat of becoming caught up in gang violence wasn’t her only concern.
“I was made fun of in elementary school because I didn’t have the nicest clothes. We bought our clothes at Kmart or Walmart or got hand-me-downs from other families at the start of the school year. By the spring I usually outgrew the clothes and wore things that were too short for me. Or if there were holes or stains in my clothing I would just keep wearing them because we couldn’t afford new clothes. A few times the school counselor offered to give my sisters and I clothing, but my mom didn’t accept. I think she was too embarrassed.”
Getting wholesome food to eat was difficult.
“We were on food stamps until middle school. There would be plenty of food in the house around the first of the month, but toward the end of the month, there wasn’t much to eat. All our vegetables were canned because it was what we could afford. I remember it was a treat to get frozen broccoli and cauliflower.”
When she was 8, Longworth’s family moved into a double-wide trailer. While many of her neighbors were good people who happened to be poor, some of her neighbors were known as meth addicts. “I was actually really embarrassed about where I lived in middle and high school and never invited friends outside the trailer park over. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become less embarrassed and it’s helped me appreciate what I have in life now so much more.”
Longworth’s goal of becoming a physician began in the wake of her surgery at age 2 to remove a defective extra kidney — the ureter had been emptying into the wrong place, causing painful and life-threatening infections. “I followed up regularly with my family doctor throughout childhood.
“I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was about 10-years-old. I have grown up keenly aware of how lucky I am to be alive. Things might have been drastically different had I been born in another time or even another country, and that thought often brings tears to my eyes. When I reflect on my life’s purpose — why I was granted the opportunity to live past my toddler years — the answer I come up with is to carry on the work of my saviors. The root of my desire to study medicine lies in the tremendous amount of gratitude I have for the surgeons who trained for years to save my life, and their dedication has instilled in me the desire to do the same for my own patients.”
It was largely her grandfather, who handled much of her upbringing, that Longworth credits for her commitment to education at an early age. “He wasn’t able to finish school, had his own cleaning business until he became disabled, and he always said he could have made more of his life with an education. I also had some good teachers that motivated me, and my mother inspired me by going after her college education part-time when I was 12. I saw education as a way to improve my life.”
Still, money, or rather the lack of it, did not make studying easy. At 15, she took a part-time job in a casino. She also held a job at Macy’s her junior and senior years. “I would have graduated better than 25th in my class of 400 if I hadn’t had to work so much.”
After graduation from high school, she decided to go to junior college because it was cheaper. But even though she was working, she had to take out a loan. “I never thought about joining the military until I took out loans my freshman year of college. Suddenly the recruiter’s promise of money for college became very enticing. I knew I would need to go through a lot of schooling to become a doctor and the military offered an opportunity someone from my background couldn’t pass up.”
With the prospect of the GI Bill paying for her college education, Longworth enlisted in the Air Force for four years, where she served as a Spanish linguist. After finishing her enlistment, she studied biology at UNR. Before starting her first semester of full-time college, she met her now-husband, who was serving in the Nevada Air National Guard. After learning how much he loved his job, she enlisted, eventually becoming a medic. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree with honors and being accepted to medical school, she was commissioned by the Air National Guard as an officer under the early physician appointment program. She’s now a first lieutenant. “I plan to serve as a flight surgeon, which is the physician who takes care of pilots and the rest of the air crew to make sure they are medically ready to complete their mission.”
Given that her work with the Air National Guard is part-time, Longworth, who received a full scholarship to medical school as part of the school's inaugural class, plans on having a full-time practice in either emergency or family medicine. “I like caring for both children and adults. I also like that both specialties are broad scope and mobile career paths that I can take to any location in the world. And the military needs both.”
Longworth is now in the clinical part of the medical school curriculum. “I remember when I thought I was busy during first and second year. Now I’m really busy. I am loving it, though. I like it so much more than the classroom and I learn so much every day.”
A Personal Loss
Even though she finds herself busier than ever, she finds the time to reflect on her life.
“I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles, but the biggest challenge thus far has been the passing of my grandfather last January while I was studying for my Step 1 board exam. I was really close to him as he was the person who raised me. I was completely unprepared for how grief would affect me while studying for the most important test of my medical school career. It was tough. Grief would come up during a practice exam or practice question and it was difficult to focus. But I made it through. I know he would be very proud of me.”
Though it hasn’t been easy, Longworth said she’s worked to keep a positive attitude.
“I could have been angry and bitter about the hand I was dealt early in my life. But I think it made more sense to work hard and do well so I could help make the world a better place.”