Juanita Wheeler is in her third semester of medical school at the American University of Antigua College of Medicine (AUA). But at age 46 she is not your typical medical student.
Raised in Fouke, Arkansas, Juanita worked on her family farm as a child. Her parents thought she would be a veterinarian but Juanita had other ideas. “For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help other people,” she says. Financial difficulties prevented her from following this path, but she didn’t give up on her dream of helping others. From 1996-1999 she served in the army as a medic, opening her eyes to a career in emergency medicine.
For 22 years she served as a paramedic in the US Army, Arkansas,Texas and Louisiana until a freak ambulance accident left her injured and unable to perform her duties. “I sat down with my parents, husband and two kids and they said to me, ‘all your life you’ve wanted to do one thing: be a doctor.’ I thought I was too old, but I didn’t want to let my family down,” says Juanita.
Over the next two years she took the required undergraduate classes she needed for medical school and started applying. Due to her finances she knew U.S. medical schools were out of the question so she turned to the Caribbean. She was accepted to every school she applied to but she chose AUA due to its reasonable cost.
At AUA, Juanita is the second oldest female in her class. Younger students call her “Mamma Bear” because of her warmth and her willingness to help younger students with whatever challenges come their way. Her 19-year old son has taken a year off nursing school to help his dad and get a job to supplement their income. Though Juanita misses her family, and only has time to talk with them about once a week, she knows this is the path that is right for her.