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Persistence is key

  • Published
  • By Capt. Trisha Benish
  • 97th Medical Group

My story started 31 years ago, in a rather unusual way.  I’m embarrassed to say, I was born in a car, I came out on the way to the hospital.

As a child, my parents divorced when I was one, so I grew up primarily with my mom, my older brother and my younger sister. Although, I grew up in what one would call “a broken family”, I always remember feeling unconditionally loved.

Fast forward to the end of high school, I remember wanting to attend only one college, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I applied, got accepted but for some reason I gravitated toward joining the U.S. Air Force. It was the first unexpected twist in my life story. I enlisted as a weather forecaster and my first assignment out of tech school was to Sembach, Germany. It was a small base near Ramstein Air Base, Germany. I initially had intentions of getting out after completing six years, but much before my six year mark, I realized I wanted to stay in. I loved the military. I loved what I was doing. I loved the people I worked with and the number of opportunities the military offered me.

Life was good, especially being able to drink at 18! I enjoyed myself so much, I happened to gain 30 pounds! Although I remember still being happy in general, I was not happy with my weight gain and knew I had to lose it for myself and obviously to maintain physical fitness standards.

Halfway through my two year assignment in Germany something happened, something I will never forget. I was in my dorm room relaxing when my phone rang. It was my Dad, which was really odd because he didn’t normally call at this time of the day. He was sobbing and the first words out of his mouth were “Your brother shot himself in the head”. That day changed me and my family forever. I was able to fly home to Wisconsin and stay with my family for about 30 days.

After that, I was back to work and I tried to resume my life as “normal” as I could. He’s been gone for 12 years now, and I still know with all of my heart that he wishes he wouldn’t have done that.

I stayed motivated at work, despite still mourning the loss of my brother, and I found ways to keep myself moving forward in my Air Force career.

After my assignment to Germany, I lucked out and got a one-year remote assignment to Honduras as a weather forecaster, with a follow-on assignment to Hawaii!

The years I spent in Hawaii were probably the most pivotal in my career progression. I can attribute this to one person, U.S. Air Force Capt. Nathan Nylander. Nylander was my weather flight commander but more specifically, he was an officer that loved the USAF, he visibly lived by our core values and consistently led by example. He was the first mentor I had in my career. Looking back on it I realize now just how much he continuously pushed me past what I thought my limits were. Even more important, he made me set a career goal.

Officially setting the goal on which direction I was going to take in my career was the hardest part. I enjoyed weather but knew my heart belonged in medicine, so after researching my many options within the Air Force, I set a goal to apply to the Air Force’s physician assistant program, which wouldn’t be until three years down the road. I set my goal out in order to give me the time it would take to complete all of the prerequisites for the program. To keep myself on track, I came up with a strict school schedule to make sure I could get them all completed in time.

A small wrench got thrown in my school plans when I was tasked for a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008.

However, on that deployment, I was introduced to CrossFit and I fell in love. As most of you know, many of us CrossFit athletes are a little crazy, but we love every minute of it. I had such a passion for the sport that I decided to get certified as a CrossFit coach. As I adapted to the new lifestyle, I began incorporating a maintainable healthy diet and regular high intensity exercise. I was more than able to lose those 30 pounds I had gained while stationed in Germany. I found that by sticking to my strict regimen every day, I was able to reach my fitness goals. Persistence is the key to achieving goals.

After multiple years of preparation and prerequisites, in 2009, I submitted my package to the Air Force physician assistant program. It was a long one year, before the results were released. Out of 90 applicants, I was lucky enough to be one of the 35 accepted! I was so grateful. It was such a rewarding culmination of all the hard work and dedication from years prior. Naturally, I was nervous. I tried to picture myself practicing medicine and treating patients. I knew how to forecast the weather and that type of career change seemed so drastic. Little did I know it was just the beginning of years of fulfillment. A career in the medical field used to seem so distant, but finally it was becoming more of a reality.

After Capt Nylander and I spent three memorable years together, he was moved back to the states. Even though we were geographically separated, I knew, no matter where we were in the world, I could still reach out to him and he would help me with absolutely anything. Career wise, it was truly the most comforting feeling. At this point, having been in the military for seven years, I now understood the importance of having a mentor.

After being stationed in Hawaii for five amazing years, it was finally time to start my newest journey of becoming a physician assistant at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

During my very first week of school, I experienced another moment I’ll never forget. I was driving home in the slow San Antonio traffic when one of my weather friends called. Like the conversation with my dad, it was an unusual time to be hearing from this person. The news he had to deliver was tragic. My first and invaluable mentor, Capt. Nylander, was killed while deployed to Afghanistan by an Afghanistan air force pilot who opened fire on a room of U.S. Airmen. He left behind his beautiful family, a wife and three kids.

At that point, it was an easy decision to dedicate the next two years and likely to be the most demanding and challenging of my life, to him. To this day, when I have a tough decision to make or when deciding how to respond to a certain situation, I think to myself: What would Capt. Nylander do? How would he have handled this situation? Based off the type of person he was, I absolutely know I’m doing the right thing.

The first year of my schooling earned me a bachelor’s degree. It also proved to be the most challenging, exhausting and rewarding year of my life. The following year was phase two of physician assistant school at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where I did clinical rotations. This was what I considered my fun, hands on year where everything finally came together.

After two and half years of wearing cadet rank and getting staff sergeant pay, I was finally commissioned as a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. I finally received my master’s degree on graduation day in 2013.

A few months before graduation, I found out my first assignment as an officer would be to Altus Air Force Base, Okla. I had actually heard of Altus AFB frequently from a C-17 squadron I supported in Hawaii. They had always seemed very excited to get back home.

Truth be told, I love it here. I believe that this assignment has also been pivotal to my career progression. The small population of our base has allowed so many opportunities for my growth in leadership. If I’m going to be really honest with you, going from weather in the operations world to seeing patients in medicine was a challenge, but going from enlisted to an officer was even more of a challenge. I spent 10 years being a part of the enlisted force and then, one day, there were brand new expectations of me. But, as with all things, time made it easier.

Altus is a slow pace base so I took the opportunity to work on my personal fitness. In early 2015, I began getting bored with CrossFit, which I never thought would happen. Instead of stopping working out altogether, I decided to pursue bodybuilding and prepare for a figure competition. This realm of fitness was brand new to me! The thought of getting on a stage, in a suit, to show off my muscles, was daunting. But naturally, me being me, I find pleasure in doing things that get me out of my comfort zone. I competed in my first figure competition last October and to my surprise I placed 2nd! It was definitely a new experience.

The best part of being here has been having the opportunity to take care of all of you over the past two years. It has been the best, most gratifying years of my career. Although I love what I do in Family Practice, I realized in phase two of physician assistant school, my heart belongs in the emergency room.

In my career field, we have to work in family practice for a minimum of two years before we can apply to a program allowing us to specialize. Last year, I was approaching the end of my second year of family practice experience and decided to put in a package to the Air Force’s emergency medicine physicians assistant doctorate program. Since I was a fairly new physician assistant, I thought I’d go out on a limb and just see what happens. After waiting again, for what seemed like forever, I found out I was one of only two physician assistants that were selected to the program.

In a few short months I’ll be moving down to San Antonio to start an 18 month fellowship to specialize in emergency medicine.

Now that you have a good idea of where I have come from, I’d like to leave you with a few of the greatest lessons I’ve learned throughout my 13 years in the USAF.

Actually deciding on and setting the goal is the hardest part. Once it’s set, all you have to do is take the necessary strides to achieve it, one baby step at a time.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Make sure you know how to decide what is important and what is not. Sweating the small stuff will only hold you back in the end

Lastly, believe in yourself, get uncomfortable as frequently as possible, dream big and don’t forget that persistence is key!