By 2nd Lt. Scarlett Rodriguez
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
There are sounds of passing machines and strangers, their footsteps, beeps, ticks and chatter fill a room blanketed in white and gray. There’s a young boy sitting on a large, worn hospital bed in the center of the room, alone, but unafraid. If anything he feels withered.
Doctors whisk by his room, just like they always do, no one sparing him a glance or concern. Many of the doctors he’s met before only pay attention after a close inspection of his medical sheet, but today something changes.
A doctor pokes his head through the doorway, not the child’s doctor, but it doesn’t matter to the child. This doctor smiles at him, chats with him and reassures him. Before long, the doctor is gone before the boy could even catch his name, even so, he felt better.
This fleeting moment may have seemed small to that doctor, but to the child, it set the course of his life. This meeting, combined with this childhood sickness, and a passion for learning, had set in motion a doctor in the making.
Now, at 26 years of age, after graduating college, enlisting, working, testing and applying to 15 medical schools, Senior Airman Cory Johnson, 3rd Space Operations Squadron procedures technician, is about to begin a new chapter of his life, in a dual-enrollment plan with the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
But how did his life-long dream of medicine lead him to Schriever, a space base in the Air Force?
This, seemingly odd, turn in his life began after college. Johnson had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human physiology with a minor in ecology and evolutionary biology. While many of his classmates jumped straight into attempting medical school after graduation, Johnson aimed to set himself apart from the herd.
Johnson’s aim for the military was to diversify while giving back to his country. His father had spent several years in the U.S. Army as a Green Beret, so following in his footsteps seemed to be the best course of action.
“It was funny,” said Johnson. “When I originally joined the military, I tried to do security forces.”
However, because of an injury at the tail end of basic training, he had to be reclassified. Thinking this a no-better time to realign himself with his career goals, he provided a full list of eight medical jobs he would have liked to do instead.
“When I received my orders, they told me I was going to California. I asked: ‘Cool, what medical jobs are in California?’ They said: ‘None, you’re going in to space,’” said Johnson.
He let out a low chuckle and smiled.
“I just kind of stumbled upon it. It’s been a great time here,” he said.
After some time spent at his first duty station, Johnson arrived at Schriever in January 2015. Shortly after arriving, he attended the First Term Airmen’s Center class, and was introduced to Cecilia Smith, Schriever sexual assault victim advocate and Paula Krause, Schriever sexual assault response coordinator. Johnson has worked closely with both women as a victim advocate and all-around volunteer since the day they met.
The two SAPR representatives motivated and pushed Johnson through every task towards medical school he has had to complete since their meeting.
“We were rooting for him to get into a school,” said Smith.
“I wrote one of his letters of recommendations,” said Krause.
The dedication they have shown him, they assure, is a reflection of the work and friendship he has offered them in the last two years as a victim advocate, friend and Airman.
Both women also expressed no doubt in his ability to handle the demands expected of him in his pursuit of a medical degree, just as they hadn’t been surprised when he had been accepted to school.
“It’s funny, when I got it, it was like, ‘Congratulations, but I told you it was going to happen,’” said Johnson.
Johnson’s unfaltering smile couldn’t help but grow when talking about the day he received news of his acceptance. After a rigorous application process to enter medical school, he had received quite the gift.
“I found out three days before my birthday,” said Johnson. “I’d say it was a good birthday gift, just finding out.”
Johnson, after taking the Medical College Admission Test, received his score fairly quickly. However even after immediately applying those scores to his 15 medical school applications, he had to wait months, then receive secondary applications, fill them out, resubmit them, wait again, received three out of 15 interviews, wait again, and then fly to three different locations and interview against students with undergraduate degrees from universities such as Harvard and Yale.
Despite the competition and importance partnered with these interviews, Johnson was not shaken.
“He’s able to look at (other students strengths) like, ‘Okay that’s good for you, and nothing against that, but I feel like I have this to offer, and this is what I bring to the table’” said Krause. “He has confidence, not arrogance, not ego, but he knows what he’s capable of.”
Johnson explains how the only terrifying moment he experienced was after he returned to share the news of his acceptance with his supervisor and coworkers.
“I told my supervisor the morning I came back from leave,” said Johson. “Later I’m sitting at my desk when I saw the commander, the director of operations, the superintendent, the assistant director of operations, my supervisor, my flight chief, everyone just walk towards my desk.”
He paused to sit straight-up in his seat, fists curled on his knees, mimicking the motions he had done in that moment.
“’Oh God, am I in trouble?’ Completely forgetting I just told my supervisor, because all you see is all these higher ranking people come walking towards you and all you can think is, ‘what did I do,’” he said.
Despite Johnson’s panic, his supervisors were there to congratulate him on his acceptance, and wanted to reassure him they would help in any way they could with his separation.
Johnson admits joining the military was one of the best decisions he could have made, and believes it may have been one of the reasons his applications and interviews were more competitive.
“I think the military has really broadened his world view and helped him with executing projects,” said Krause. “He has a thirst for knowledge, he has a helping heart, and he already has the ability to lead. He’s also able to not get bogged-down in minute things.”
These abilities helped him not only on paper, but gave him confidence in person to sell himself to the schools he interviewed with, and maybe someday those abilities will partner with the Air Force once again.
“It just happened that the last year of my enlistment that I happened to get into medical school,” said Johnson. “Maybe after I’m done, I’ll consider coming back (to the military) a few years later. It’s all a matter of how things go.”
However Johnson does not deny, “going from E-4 to O-3, that’d be amazing.”
Ultimately, Johnson’s goal is to become a doctor; where he takes his career after receiving his medical degree is still up for debate.
“Knowing me I’d probably either do emergency medicine because I’m one of those people who can handle it if ‘the world is ending,’” said Johnson. “Or pediatrics because I was a sick kid and I would like to give back to the sick kids.”
Despite having options open to him, once Johnson chooses his path, he’s in it for the long haul.
“It’s definitely one of those things that’s a life-long ambition,” said Johnson. “I’ll probably be one of those old doctors that’s like: ‘So I can’t actually do any surgeries or work with any patients but I’m going to sit in this office and make it look like I’m doing something until I pass out and then you have to take care of me for the rest of my life.’”
Until he’s able to retire at his desk, Johnson still has to complete medical school. He will be learning through a difficult dual-enrollment program sometime after his separation with the help of his G.I. Bill, and while he would have liked to stay in Colorado, he does not mind the thought of being near the beach once again.
“There’s never a road that’s perfectly smooth,” said Johnson. “Even Marksheffel, that’s getting paved right now, it’s wavy-a little bit-there’s always going to be some bumps.”
“Even with all the stressful situations, late nights, early mornings, and days where I don’t get to sleep because I’m on call, it’ll all be worth it for me. As long as I know I’m doing something that’s worthwhile,” said Johnson.
His passion to achieve his dream will not be snuffed-out due to adversity. His urgency to help others has been developing since the encounter he had with a kind doctor when he was 10 years old. The one who took the time to notice him as a person, not as his disease.
“There’s a quote that says: ‘Good doctors treat diseases, great doctors treat patients with diseases,’ and when it comes to medicine, that’s my approach,” said Johnson.
While Johnson has a deep respect for the several doctors he had to come into contact with due to his repetitive bouts of pneumonia, asthma and other ailments as a child, the kindly doctor who spoke to him as a brief but necessary friend had made him realize the need for someone who isn’t just passionate for work or money, but for people.
“Yes, your job is to treat a disease, but these diseases aren’t their own entity. People have them.”