Finding purpose in helping others

Grossmont College student brings Army medic experience to nursing studies

Leonardo Becerra HeadshotLeonardo Becerra vividly remembers the moment that he realized a nursing career may be the right fit for him.

Then an Army combat medic serving in Afghanistan, Becerra was on duty on a base in Kabul one day in 2011. Suddenly four Afghani men, in desperate need of help, carried a young girl on a stretcher toward him and his fellow medics. For a fleeting moment, he and his colleagues froze. They were unsure of what to do with the gravely injured child, who had been hit by a vehicle and was dying of a massive head wound. Then one of the medics, a nurse in civilian life, took charge. She intubated the girl to keep her breathing, administered injections, and directed CPR.

The girl’s injuries were too massive to survive, but the experience of watching that fellow medic in action changed Becerra forever.

Until that day, the 32-year-old Grossmont College nursing student had wanted to be a doctor. But the nurse acting while others hesitated was a revelation. “I didn’t know that nurses had such a wealth of knowledge,” he remembered thinking.

A resident of south San Diego, Becerra finished Grossmont College’s nursing program in December and plans to take his licensing exam on Jan. 31. He has already secured a job at Alvarado Hospital in La Mesa as an emergency room technician, and he hopes to transition into working as a flight nurse for an emergency medical air service.

“We used to get into helicopters in the Army, and we would evacuate people that way,” Becerra said. “When I first flew in a helicopter, I thought: This is the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. It’s like being in a movie.”

Becerra’s journey from his childhood to where he stands now, on the threshold of an exciting and rewarding career, was never certain. He had a difficult childhood. Self-described as undisciplined, disorganized, and reckless growing up, Becerra was headed for trouble when his mother, Elena, placed him in the care of extended family in San Diego while she attended to her ill father in Mexico.

Becerra credits family members with setting him on the right path.

Becerra began taking general education classes at Grossmont College in 2011, but deployments in the Army pulled him away from his education. After his military service, he was accepted into the highly competitive nursing program at Grossmont College, which selects 40 applicants every semester out an applicant pool that averages nearly 300 people.

Grossmont College Associate Dean of Nursing Deborah Chow said veterans tend to bring strong skills to the program. This includes significant triage experience, from working in high-stress environments where patients need immediate, critical medical care. Veterans are often not afraid to touch patients, and they are very good with time management.

In a professional nursing program like at Grossmont College, “we just need to broaden their scope of practice and knowledge so they can do well,” Chow said. Once they complete the nursing program, many veterans such as Becerra often work in emergency rooms and intensive care units – for obvious reasons.

“I’m really impressed by him,” Chow said of Becerra. “He presents himself in a very professional manner, and he’s very compassionate.”

Students receive a tremendous amount of support once they enter the nursing program at Grossmont College. Two “student success advisers” on staff work closely with first semester students, and a dedicated faculty is highly regarded by students in the program, Chow said.

Becerra first thought about a career in medicine when he was 18, and initially set his sights on becoming a doctor. He joined the Army to become a medic, build his experience in the field, and move on to medical school. He served two tours, the first in Afghanistan, and a second at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Working as a medic in Afghanistan, Becerra began to observe that doctors spent much of their time at the computer entering notes for patient charts and doing other administrative work. But he loved interacting with patients at their bedside. “Somehow people would open up to me and tell me they were going through difficult times – and they hardly knew me,” Becerra said.

One Army captain confided in Becerra that she had been feeling suicidal. “She opened up to me, and we got her help,” he said. “I realized I had a gift for that kind of care, and that my ability to connect with people might be wasted if I was stuck behind a computer writing notes. I decided that being a doctor was too far removed from what I was good at.”

One reason Becerra had been able to connect and empathize with fellow soldiers was that he too struggled with the intense experiences he witnessed in Afghanistan.  Becerra still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, although through counseling and treatment he has come a long way toward recovery.

At Grossmont College while completing his nursing education, Becerra said there were times when then war in Afghanistan would return out of nowhere. Someone would drop a water bottle on the classroom floor and the thud would sound exactly like a mortar round when it’s fired. “I would jump, look in that direction, and be terrified,” Becerra said. “People would look at me like I was weird. They don’t understand what PTSD is.”

Becerra credits the therapy he has received with improving his mental health in the wake of two tours abroad, and on helping him focus on his future.

He has found purpose helping others endure difficult times, in part because he’s endured some himself.

Now, focused on a career built on care and compassion, Becerra says he has a simple but profound goal: to comfort people when they are at their most vulnerable.

“I want to be the best I can be on someone’s worst day,” he said.