High Energy – High Achiever
Story and Photography by Randy Gaddo CWO-4 (USMC (Ret)
To describe Aileen Cangiano-Heath as a high-energy woman may be somewhat of an understatement considering her credentials and accomplishments. She’s a medical doctor, a Navy lieutenant commander and the senior medical officer at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort medical clinic. She is also a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. On the personal side, Aileen has been married to Michael Heath for 17 years and has two daughters.
All this from a woman who was told early in life she had three strikes against her: being a minority, being a female and being poor. But she learned to rise above the naysayers.
“Once, I was only motivated by end points, but in recent years, I have learned to be much more comfortable with the journey,” Aileen said.
Her journey started in a black, Puerto Rican and Sicilian home in what she described as “one of the worst sections of Brooklyn, which left little room for hesitation, lest one fall through the cracks.”
Living up to the cliché, “The race is not for the swift but for those who can endure the test,” Aileen finished high school and was awarded scholarships for distance running and earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in biology and a Bachelor’s of Arts in Spanish language, culture and literature from Syracuse University in New York (SUNY).
She interned at SUNY Upstate Medical Center and then in 1998 received her Master of Science in neuroscience at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering’s Institute of Sensory Research.
Aileen worked as assistant director of multicultural affairs and had two children before deciding to go back to medical school.
Michael was not surprised when she gave him the news. “I was studying for law school and she said she was going to apply to med school and I said ‘OK,’ but figured she probably wouldn’t follow through with it. I’m not sure why I thought that, I already knew who I was dealing with,” he said.
When she told Michael she’d been accepted, he had to make good on a deal they’d made that if she worked to help put him through his undergraduate schooling, he’d support her during medical school. Her decision to join the Navy came after her first year in medical school.
“I didn’t grow up with money, so I went into medical school and hustled around for scholarships that first year,” she recalled. “Then, they told me I wouldn’t have enough money with financial aid by my third year to make it through, so I literally, that very day, walked out and went directly to the Navy recruiting office and said, ‘Sign me up.’”
Michael was somewhat surprised at that. “We realized we couldn’t afford it and she said that she had talked with the recruiter and I said ‘What?’” Michael said. “I just never thought of her in the military.”
“I didn’t even hesitate because I had to finish med school,” declared Aileen. As it turned out, the Navy suited her. “It fits well with my personality,” she said. “The Navy saved my life in more ways than one and I am eternally grateful. I appreciate it for its structure, form and function.”
Aileen went on to earn her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. She was class president her senior year and was ranked No. 5 out of 103 students.
Along the way, she has earned accolades in the civilian environment for top research projects and earned the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement and Commendation Medals for her service in Afghanistan. Most recently, she was named the Navy Junior Physician of the Year (2015).
Aileen and Michael’s daughters are equally forward-thinking. Their oldest, Neelia (Aileen spelled backward), 16, wanting an Ivy League education, took it upon herself to apply and gain a spot at the South Carolina Governor’s School of Science and Mathematics in Hartsville.
Their 13-year-old, Adriana, attends Riverview Charter School in Beaufort, where Michael is a first-grade instructional assistant, as he pursues his master’s in education.
At the Air Station, Aileen carries a full patient load; she sees Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) patients on base and is the officer in charge of the limited duty and medical evaluation board responsible for 13 squadrons on the base.
Where will her journey carry her from here? With eight months left on her Navy obligation, she said she would like to stay in and continue in neurosurgery or dermatological surgery. If she were to leave the service, she said she would like to stay in neurosurgery.
Either way, it is abundantly clear that this is one energized, sharp woman whose batteries are in no danger of running low any time soon.