Alumna's Healthcare Profession Takes Flight

When high expectations among professors met small class sizes at BVU, the sky literally became the limit for Jessica Warneke. Since graduating from BVU in 2009, this U.S. Army flight surgeon has cared for soldiers in assignments in Alaska, Hawaii, Florida and Alabama.

As a four-year-old, Jessica Warneke used to play with her mother’s stethoscope and listen to her grandpa’s heart. 

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a doctor,” says Warneke ’09. “It’s a cliché, but I had a calling to help people.”

Her mother was a nurse, but says she couldn’t imagine waiting for someone else to give orders if a patient was in pain and needed help immediately. Today, Warneke, 32, is a flight surgeon in the U.S. Army. No surprise on the choosing a military path either. As a girl, she dressed up as a soldier for Halloween and had long talked about following in the footsteps of other family members in the service.

Warneke grew up in Holdrege, Nebraska, a town of about 5,500 and had grandparents in central Iowa, which drew her to Buena Vista University. 

“When I stepped on campus, I liked the nice small town feel. Everyone was so friendly,” says Warneke who met the science professors and talked to other students. It was the only college to which she applied, and by August of her senior year in high school she’d put down a housing deposit.

Warneke majored in biology with minors in general science, chemistry, and philosophy and religion. On campus, she was a tutor, played softball, and worked as a residence assistant in Liberty Hall. She says high expectations by professors and small classes prepared her well for her career.

"One hundred percent, hands down, I would not have passed my medical school exams if it were not for my degree at Buena Vista"

Jessica Warneke '09

Advanced science classes, often with 10 students or fewer, gave her a strong foundation that carried her through graduate-level courses.

“I was impressed at how hard she worked,” says Brian Lenzmeier, BVU provost and former professor who describes Warneke as having one of the top 10 work ethics of the more than 400 students he’s worked with over the years. Observing her in the lab, he also noticed Warneke’s outstanding manual dexterity—a skill that will serve her well administering medical care in a helicopter.

In 2009, Warneke was one of seven graduates who went on to medical school. In response to that strong class of future physicians, BVU established a program to encourage graduates to practice medicine in a rural setting: Undergraduate Rural Medicine Education and
Development (URMED).  

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Warneke joined the military and received a scholarship to cover most of her medical school costs at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. Warneke became active duty in the Army following her 2013 graduation. Her flight medicine training and residency has led to assignments in Alaska, Hawaii, and Florida. At Fort Wainwright, Alaska, Warneke was responsible for the care of 800 soldiers as Battalion Flight Surgeon for an Aviation Battalion. Along the way, Warneke received her master of public health from the University of West Florida.

Warneke now serves at Fort Rucker, Alabama, as an aerospace and occupational medicine resident where she does monthly rotations in different medical specialties (cardiology, emergency medicine, etc.) and provides care in the Aviation Medicine clinic. Warneke says she tries to understand the context of patients’ injuries and suggest changes in their routines that can keep them healthy. For instance, pilots who suffer from back pain may benefit from core strengthening.

Warneke says she became more open minded, compassionate, and understanding taking religion classes from Swasti Bhattacharyya at BVU. “She taught me about tolerance and respect,” says Warneke of Bhattacharyya. “It was a huge thing.”

Being able to listen and take a larger view of the whole person is something Bhattacharyya, a registered nurse and professor of religion at BVU, admires about Warneke. “She has a big heart. Jessica treats her patients as whole beings, living in complex situations, and works to understand their perspectives. Studying religion can enable people to see beyond their own worldview and try to understand the world of others,” Bhattacharyya says.

While a student at BVU, Warneke says working at an orphanage in Jamaica on a service trip and traveling to India with Bhattacharyya and other students were impactful experiences. “I’d advise students to do everything they can. Don’t just go to your classes...explore and learn to think on our own," she says.

"I may not be able to change the world, but if there is one person a day or a week who I can pull them back from the edge or be that person to sit there and listen…that’s enough for me."

Jessica Warneke '09

Warneke and Bhattacharyya remain in close contact. “She is my mentor, my guru and friend,” says Warneke, who relied on Bhattacharyya for words of encouragement through difficult times in medical school. “When everyone was grabbing at straws, she was my sounding board.” Bhattacharyya flew out to attend her graduation.

She was selected to go to the 4th Security Forces Assistance Brigade at Fort Carson, Colorado to work as a physician once she finishes her residency. She hopes for a deployment to use her emergency medical skills. Her long-term career dream after retiring from the military is to open a wellness center that incorporates behavioral health, nutrition, massage therapy, and exercise under one roof to serve elderly people in retirement.

Warneke says she has seen so many people who are hurting—physically, mentally, or spiritually—that she wants to do her part to care for them.