The military practically gave Dr. Jennea Correia a free ride to medical school, and in return, the doctor served her country for 12 1/2 years, including a stint in Afghanistan.
During her time on active duty and reserves, the Navy commander—who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and became an American citizen as a teenager—had varied duties. Stateside, she got Marines ready for deployment, and when she was sent to a combat zone, she treated those injured and set up clinics for Afghan civilians.
The service seemed a fair price to pay for everything she received.
“This country exposed me to opportunities I never would have had, and this was a way for me to pay it back,” said the Stafford County resident. “When I signed up, I knew that there was a chance I would deploy. Turned out to be a good educational, character-building experience.”
The time in uniform also opened Correia’s eyes to other benefits of being an American. While in Afghanistan, she was doing checkups with women who worked with local police departments, and she requested urine samples. Soon after the first woman used the bathroom, the facility had to be shut down.
The patient had urinated on the floor because she didn’t know what a toilet was for. Correia had to sensitively explain its use without causing further embarrassment.
“Women aren’t educated or respected there, and it made me sad,” Correia said. “But it also made me thankful for where I live, thankful that I was able to get an education and thankful that I’m respected.”
Correia, 40, is the associate medical director of the emergency department at Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center—and her supervisor would say she’s definitely respected.
Dr. Jayson Tappan directs the department, and the majority of doctors around him have military training, as he and Correia do. Tappan served 20 years, including active duty and reserves, and he was a year ahead of Correia. They worked together at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, where she did her internship and residency.
Tappan likes the way physicians, just as others in the military, “fight for their battle buddy.” Emergency room doctors at Spotsylvania are paid hourly, not by the number of patients seen or revenue generated, and those with combat-duty training have “an internal motivation” to take care of people as quickly and thoroughly as possible, he said.
“We have had quite a bit of success recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest from the military system, and Dr. Correia is the prime example,” Tappan said. “I am very blessed to have her as my battle buddy.”
Correia’s parents left their Caribbean island for work opportunities in the United States. Her mother wanted her to finish high school in her homeland, so Correia lived with her grandparents, surrounded by extended family and cousins.
Her father died a year after the couple migrated, and Correia missed her mother, even though she visited America regularly. She came to realize the sacrifices made on her behalf.
“My mother worked two jobs,” she said. “In retrospect, if she hadn’t done what she did, I would not be here.”
After high school, Correia earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Howard University in Washington. She considered being a chemist, but an internship in which she shadowed doctors convinced her to pursue a medical degree.
A conversation with a Navy recruiter offered a way to pay for it.
Those who join the Health Professions Scholarship Program through the military can become trained as doctors—and bypass a debt of more than $250,000. Correia needed some loans to pay for her rent, transportation and food, but said they were minimal compared with those of other medical students.
Participants owe the military a year of service for every year in medical school and residency. Soon after Correia started at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey in 2001, she had to go through the Navy’s “knife and fork program.”
So-called because it was supposed to be easy compared with boot camp, the training schooled would-be doctors in the etiquette of being a Navy doctor. But the first morning, when an instructor banged on her door, marched her outside in her robe and continued yelling in her ear, Correia wondered what in the world she had gotten herself into.
“I told myself that was probably the worst of it, and once I got over it, I would be fine,” she said.
‘FIGURE IT OUT’
Correia graduated from medical school in 2005, then completed her first year of transitional medicine internship at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth. She assumed she’d continue the training, but the Navy had other things in mind.
She was told to “get out there and take care of the fleet” and was sent to Okinawa, Japan, with Marine Air Control Group 18. For two years, she was the general medical officer, responsible for the care of 1,200 Marines and sailors.
Correia initially was nervous that she wasn’t prepared for such duties, “but it was the best thing that could have happened to me,” she said. “When they throw you into something, you have to figure it out, and you do.”
She resumed her residency after two years in Japan.
Correia spent 9 1/2 years on active duty, stationed at both coasts of the United States when she wasn’t overseas. She left the Navy because she’d been away from her loved ones for too long, and she wanted the freedom to travel and start her own family.
She and her partner, Neil Matthew, who is retired from the military, have an 8-month-old daughter, Zhuri.
When Correia was considering her options as a civilian physician, she put in a call to Tappan. He immediately asked if she wanted a job, and on her first visit to the Spotsylvania hospital, she was impressed by the way physicians of all specialties mingled together in the lounge instead of being segregated by their departments.
“It seemed like a family to me,” she said.
Correia immediately canceled her other interviews and took the job at Spotsylvania in May 2014. She likes the variety of cases in the emergency department, which is much different from the military clinics in which she worked.
“I really like this place,” she said. “It keeps me on my toes.”