An Ohio Doctor's Remarkable Life: I Was a Jet Pilot, Barely Avoided 9/11 Flight, Then Fell in Love Overseas

“I liken myself to ... Forrest Gump" but "I don’t feel extraordinary”

<p>courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza</p> Dr. Cho Espinoza as a U2 pilot and now working at Cleveland Clinic

courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza

Dr. Cho Espinoza as a U2 pilot and now working at Cleveland Clinic

Dr. Cholene Espinoza joined the U.S. Air Force at 17 and was one of the first women to fly a U-2 jet. Later, she was a commercial pilot who barely missed being on Flight 93 on Sept. 11.

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, she became a correspondent in the Middle East — and at 45, she switched careers to become a doctor.

Now 59, she’s an OB-GYN at the Cleveland Clinic. She returned to the hometown of her wife, journalist and former TV news contributor Ellen Ratner. And she still thinks about the next adventure.

Here is Espinoza’s story, told to PEOPLE’s Susan Young, in her own words.

I liken myself to a female version of Forrest Gump.

I’ve seen so many things that are just completely humbling that I don’t feel extraordinary. But my secret sauce is that I will say yes to an opportunity and even if it’s a setback, I don’t let that or failure put me in a situation of shame where I’m not going to keep pushing forward.

I got an appointment to the Air Force Academy, class of 1987. That was the seventh class of women. I remember one upperclassman saying, “What are you doing here? You can’t even fly combat?’’ Ultimately, of course, I flew combat missions.

My father had passed away around Christmas of my sophomore year. I was sort of a scrappy kid. My dad just got me and tolerated my quirkiness and inadequacies and whatnot. That January I flew gliders. It was just liberating and transcended the grief I was feeling at the time, and I never looked back.

I was somebody who was always sort of struggling. I was by no means top of my class, probably bottom third. But I had a flight instructor captain, Bob Vosburgh, who said, "You've got this. You’re a natural." And he just gave me so much confidence.

<p>courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza</p> Dr. Cho Espinoza after a U2 flight

courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza

Dr. Cho Espinoza after a U2 flight

I had the opportunity to get the fighter designation, but women couldn’t fly fighters at the time so I stayed an instructor pilot. Then George Herbert Walker Bush opened the U-2 jets up to women in ‘91 and I was the second one to fly. I remember my commander said, "You're a great pilot, but I don’t think you are big enough or strong enough to fly this airplane."

That was all I needed to boost me over the hump was to tell me I can’t do something.

It was a very challenging aircraft to fly. Obviously, you’re not flying in an area unless there’s something nefarious going on below you.

I wanted to fly, but the more senior you get in the Air Force, the less you continue to fly, so I left.

I was a captain at United Airlines, living in New York City, when 9/11 happened. I was due to commute to San Francisco on Flight 93, which ultimately crash landed when passengers fought back, but my schedule changed.

That was another point in my life where I was lost, rudderless, disoriented. The opportunity came up to be an embedded journalist with the 1st Tank Battalion during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. I worked for Talk Radio News Service, which ultimately led to me marrying Ellen Ratner, the head of that. 

<p>courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza</p> Teen-aged Cho Espinoza after joining the Air Force at 17

courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza

Teen-aged Cho Espinoza after joining the Air Force at 17

I didn't come to terms with my sexuality or have any relationships until I was like 33 years old. When I was in the military, it wasn't ‘’don't ask, don't tell." It was just — “don't."

We went to the West Bank together, with a common purpose to serve others and try to make the world a better place. We will be married 20 years in December.

My cousin-in-law Richard Miller likes to say the further you are from something, the easier it is to have an opinion. I got interested in medicine when I rotated through a medical unit while working as an embedded journalist. I rode a medical helicopter evac transport taking Iraqi prisoners to our medical facility.

The crew chief handed me an IV bag for the prisoner as we were flying over the desert and it was a surreal experience, different from flying a U-2 on the other side. At the hospital I ran into some surgeons who were trying to save a child blown up by a land mine. And I was struck by these experiences, this connection between even enemies and thought if I had it to do over again, I would be a doctor.

It took me about six years before I decided to do it. 

<p>courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza</p> Cho Espinoza during her commercial airlines career

courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza

Cho Espinoza during her commercial airlines career

I went to fly for Emirates. I had a layover in Calcutta in India and wanted to see Mother Teresa's mission there. And I was really struggling with the idea of leaving aviation. It was just very difficult for me to give up something that I was good at and into the unknown of medicine and into a field of academics that I had not done well with in the past.

So I was sitting in Mass and the story was of Lazarus and the sisters and how Jesus shows up late after he is dead, and the sisters were quite upset with Jesus and they kept saying to him, “What were you waiting for?" That night, I wrote my letter of resignation to Emirates Airlines.

Anytime you step out, people say, “Oh my God, you've done so much.” And I say, “Yeah, but is it a midlife crisis versus a psychotic break?” It was a bit of a break with reality to just follow my heart that way. But fortunately, I had support — my spouse — I had resources and I got a scholarship. Not everybody can do that.

I did my obstetrics rotation when I got to med school and I never thought I would love it. At the time, I had planned to do mostly global health. I hope to go back to that. But there’s nothing quite like the adrenaline on a labor and delivery floor. It’s a wonderful specialty if you want to do low resource work. It’s a field in dire need for people who want to serve the underserved. I later decided to further specialize in critical care. 

<p>courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza</p> Last shift at California Hospital in Los Angeles before heading to fellowship in Surgical Critical Care

courtesy Dr. Cho Espinoza

Last shift at California Hospital in Los Angeles before heading to fellowship in Surgical Critical Care

I got out of active duty Air Force in 1995 but always had in mind to go back after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed. Initially the Army was looking for docs, so I got all these age and other waivers and was assigned to the 911th Forward Surgical Team in the reserves for three years on a mobile surgery unit.

I had the opportunity to get back to the Air Force, and now I’m in the 171st Medical Group of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.

It’s funny, because I’m certainly the oldest major in the Air Force, but I think it’s a big part of health is to still do the things in your life that have meaning. To take opportunities.

The military has been my common denominator, but I love the work I do at Cleveland Clinic. Every day I’m exposed to patients who are literally struggling for their lives. The kind of courage and suffering they go through with their families is a tremendously humbling experience.

You don’t have to be perfect or go in a certain path or have perfect timing. I think setbacks are temporary, and they certainly made me a better physician and a better human being.

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