FIGHTER PILOT CHANDRA BECKMAN
BATTLES THE HEALTHCARE SYSTEM
Chandra Beckman is a retired US Air Force fighter pilot who knows a bit about working in and managing difficult situations. Maneuvering through the many challenges in being an extreme minority as a female fighter pilot with children, Chandra continually found ways to overcome. The willpower, grit and determination that saw her through tough times in military and parenting situations was exactly what she needed when she faced the largest challenge of her life: her own health crisis. Undiagnosed multi-systemic issues for over a decade left her in long periods of house bound (and occasional bed-bound) states, discarded by the conventional medical realm. Based on her journey she is now creating a life in which she can use her “battle scars” to assist others who find themselves stuck in places where it seems no one can help.
IN THIS EPISODE
In this episode we talk about:
(01:08) On the one thing she's most passionate
(01:35) On being a fighter jet pilot for the United States Air Force
(03:30) What it was like to be a female in a male dominated career
(04:15) On the stresses of the job
(05:26) On how men reacted to her at the Air Force
(06:03) On her relationships with women at the Air Force
(07:47) On where she flew
(08:30) On getting diagnosed for an illness
(11:09) On how she dealt with her deteriorating health
(13:50 ) On raising children while she was ill
(15:18) On finally getting a correct diagnosis
(18:54) On how she saw the world differently after her diagnosis
(19:15) On leaving the Air Force
(20:11) On the healthcare system in the United States
(22:08) On the cost prohibitive nature of healthcare
(23:16) On the work she does helping people now
(24:07) On the services she provides
(25:00) On the advice she'd give to someone in a similar situation
(26:13) On how she's feeling today
(27:20) On the most rewarding part of her journey
(28:17) On the biggest lesson she's learned so far
(29:01) On her dream for women
Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast, where we tell stories of empowered women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and today we're talking with Chandra Beckman, a retired us Air Force fighter pilot, who knows a bit about working in and managing difficult situations. Maneuvering through the many challenges in being an extreme minority as a female fighter pilot with children, Chandra continually found ways to overcome. The willpower, grit and determination that saw her through tough times in military and parenting situations was exactly what she needed when she faced the largest challenge of her life — her own health crisis. Undiagnosed multi-systematic issues for over a decade, left her in long periods of housebound and occasional bedbound states discarded by the conventional medical realm based on her journey. She is now creating a life in which she can use her battle scars to assist others who find themselves stuck in places where it seems no one can help. So please welcome to the show. Chandra, Beckman.
Chandra, what's the one thing you're most passionate about.
Chandra Beckman: The one thing I'm most passionate about now is inclusive, inclusive healthcare options for all Americans. My journey was on laborious and costly, and I realized that if I was not in the financial position, that I was very fortunate to be in, I would not have been able to obtain the care that I did. And so I think it's very, very important for all of these health care options to be available to all Americans.
Passionistas: We totally agree. So let's start at the beginning of your journey. Why don't you tell everybody what you were doing for a career when your journey began?
Chandra: I was flying fighter jets for the United States Air Force, and I was 10 years into my career when my health started to fail. And it was very, very odd symptoms ranging from abdominal pain to GI issues, to headaches, to sinus issues, to things like mood changes, where I had previously been really optimistic and, you know, I loved challenges. I wanted to tackle anything that that could be done. And I started just getting snippy and short and angry. And my physical strength just started going away. Like literally I'm going to the gym working out more than I had been in the previous two years. And the number of sit-ups I could do was going backwards. And my physical strength just got zapped
Passionistas: Before we get into your journey to discover what that was all about. Tell us a little bit about being a fighter pilot. What inspired you to become a fighter pilot? And what was that like?
Chandra: So I was inspired to be a fighter pilot by the movie top gun. And I think I saw that way back in 1986 and I was sixth grade or so, but I loved the energy. I love the passion, the speed pushing yourself to the limit. And I just decided that's what I wanted to do. I had no idea how to get there. I had help along the way, very, very fortunate to link up with an Air Force recruiter who steered me down the path that I needed to take in order to achieve that goal.
Passionistas: It's not a very female dominated industry. So what was that experience like for you as a woman?
Chandra: For me personally, it was difficult. Although I don't think at the time I realized how difficult it was. I was so focused on doing the best I could. Every single day I was focused on completing the requirements I needed to complete. I was focused on flying to the best of my ability. And then when I went home, I was taking care of my kids with my husband. And so I didn't have time to step back and really take a look at how difficult is this position really to be in.
Passionistas: I can't even imagine how stressful that type of work must be.
Chandra: Yeah, I think for anyone, it is a very stressful job. I am pretty petite. So you know, about 5’ 4”, 115 pounds. And so every single day when I was flying, I was reaching my limits and beyond in order to perform and in order to fly the airplanes, you know, the seats are fixed. So they're really made for a range of sizes, but that range is not for the really small people or the really big people. And so you accommodate you adjust, you, figure out how can I make this situation work for me? And I can't reach the rudder pedals if they're not all the way up or I can't reach the stick in the airplane. When I'm looking over my shoulder, checking behind the airplane, flying the airplane upside down, you know, at 315 knots. And if I don't put my seat at just the right place, I can't do this physically because of that.
So every single day I was operating at the edge of my limits and then not to mention being the lone female in the all-male environment, it definitely had its challenges.
Passionistas: How did the men react to you?
Chandra: I didn't really pay attention to that. I know when I first entered that there were men that did not want me or any woman there, others didn't care either way, some were welcoming, but honestly, I really never paid attention to that aspect because I was doing everything I could to survive. And I think you have to, in that case focus, because if you open yourself to the negativity that may be existing around you, you easily drown.
Passionistas: And was there comradery among the women or was it competitive?
Chandra: I had a, a female in my pilot training class with me and we actually had discussions on that and we commented on that very aspect because her and I got along very well and we would pass other women in the hallway who wouldn't even say hello to us. And so we would just kind of ponder that, well, why is this? There's very few of us? Why would we not even just acknowledge that they're there? And I think there is there at least then 20 years ago, there was some of that, you know, you have to be tough and climb your own way up because there's only so many people that will get to where you want to go. Later on. As I moved into the, my career, my first assignment, I was the only female. So there wasn't any anyone to fight with. Right? I do remember my, what would you call the unit commander?
The squadron commander came to me at one point though, because they were ha they were getting another female to the larger organization and they were wondering, where do we put her? Do we bring her into our squadron with you? Do we put her in the other squadron? What do we do? And I actually really appreciated the fact that he came to talk to me about it. I didn't know the individual. And, and I did tell him, honestly, listen, sometimes these situations work out great. We have new issues, we're a team player. We're just trying to do the best job we can. But other times there's a lot of hostility and I unfortunately don't know the individual, so I could not give him, you know, a definite answer either way. But I did answer it as honestly, as I could, based on the situation and scenarios I had seen.
Passionistas: Where did you fly?
Chandra: Yeah, my first assignment operational flying was actually stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. And there I was flying the F 15 C. We did have a few deployments for different things. And after that assignment, I actually went and flew the F one 17 out of Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico. My only official overseas assignment was to the Republic of Korea. And in that assignment I wasn't flying.
Passionistas: So you are in this very intense career and you start to have these health issues and these symptoms talk about going to a doctor for the first time. What diagnosis were you given?
Chandra: The first time I actually went to a doctor because of all of these random, strange, unusual symptoms. I was actually in the Republic of Korea and I had been kind of observing what was going on for the past four months. And I had been to the doctor for just acute things, you know, like a sinus infection, but I had never gone into this whole conglomeration of symptoms that were occurring. And at the time I was weak to the point where, when I tried to climb up the two flights of stairs to get to my dorm room after work, I had to stop because I did not have enough oxygen to continue walking up the flight of stairs. And, you know, for someone who had been doing a very physically demanding job, the fact that I can't go up two flights of stairs without running out of oxygen, the fact that I'm working out and getting weaker, the fact that I'm having significant digestive issues and that my mood is changing and that I'm starting to have a lot of pain.
You know, these are all really, really big concerns. So I finally take them to the doctor and this was my introduction to conventional medicine. And I call it really the opening bookend. I explained to her everything that was going on and her response was you miss your kids. You'll be fine when you get back to the States. And honestly, I was like shocked, like my jaw kind of, you know, if it could, or if it did, I don't know that it did in front of her. I'm not sure I would have shown her, my reactions. I usually keep them hidden, but my jaw dropped at the same time. I'm like, I can't walk up two flights of stairs and you're telling me, this is because I miss my kids. Can I punch you in the face? You know, what's what, how, how is this even?
Okay. So that was the opening. Along with that, I had my right. I had some blurriness to it that was passing. And honestly the only thing that came out of that appointment, it was that she got me to the optometrist to, to try to see if we could get some lenses to help with the blurriness in my eyes. But other than that, there was nothing. And yeah, like I said, that was the kind of the opening bookend to my experience with conventional medicine that lasted over 10 years.
Passionistas: So then what's the next step? Your health continues to deteriorate. And do you go to a different doctor? How do you move forward?
Chandra: Yeah, over the next several years, I was seen by, I, I, to be honest, I don't have the actual count. I never did count the probably hundreds of doctors because I was transferred back to the United States back into a flying position.
And I became so weak that I could not fly. You know, another interesting factor here is, as this is occurring, the flight medicine doctors, who, some of them were very helpful. Some of them were understanding. They actually were, you know, told me to my face. I believe you. And I do honestly think something seriously is going wrong. And they were helping me get to the next step. On the other hand, you have the flight docs who told my boss she's scared to fly. And I get this. My boss happens to tell me this one day. And I said, really I'm scared to fly. Well, how am I still flying my own airplane at home, which has no objection, seat and still wanting to do it still wanting to fly Air Force aircraft. Yet my physical strength is so weak that I can't do it. And eventually my physical strength got so weak.
I couldn't even fly our own airplane at home. So, you know, individuals and it used to be just women, but it's getting to be more and more men are facing this kind of behavior, this kind of mindset from the doctors who are there to help us supposedly. And so it became very, very difficult for me to navigate that system. And I had to continue going and continue fighting for the next doctor who was going to be able to help me. I was sent through the Air Force’s medical center at the time. At the time it was called the Wilford hall. They did the full workup. They did find some minor things. And eventually I got to the Mayo clinic. They also did a full workup, some very minor things that, you know, of course, if we found, we took action on throughout this process, I went through two necessary surgeries.
Had we known what we do now, the Jews went to the unnecessary and finally in the fall of 2015, early 2016, my health crashed so much again, that I was begging the doctors to help. Meanwhile, during this, you know, almost 10 year period, I'm working a full-time job in the Air Force, not flying. It was, you know, doing various what you would call desk, desk jobs. And I'm trying to navigate the medical system while performing at work to the best of my ability.
Passionistas: And you're raising children.
Chandra: Yes. Yeah. At the time began having the serious symptoms. I was dating my now husband, but I have two grown boys and he had three girls and so five kids together while this is going on. And you know, you're like here I am someone who is used to performing and getting things done and doing whatever it takes to make things happen.
And, you know, not understanding what is it that these doctors can't help me. And as we roll back to the 2015, 2016 timeframe, when I'm bed bound several days a month, like literally do not have the strength to lift my arm off the bed. I can't work more than half a day. Most days, if that, and the doctor who I'm begging to help me tells me, you have fibromyalgia, no further workup puts it in my record. And so within the military system, you're only allowed to go to these doctors and I fought and fought and used every Avenue I could within that system and find the, I said, I'm not going to sit in the system to die. And I made up my mind to do my own research and find the doctors that could help.
Passionistas: How did you do that? And what did you eventually find out?
Chandra: Yeah, I did that by significant self-research and really it began, it, it became reading books by doctors, doctors who were in the trenches, helping patients, doctors who are specialists in areas based on symptoms I had based on the lack of energy, the energy was the biggest thing for me. And so I started researching that and eventually it brought me to the fact that I needed a functional medicine doctor and I had done the research. We had one in Las Vegas. I had spent three to four months trying to get the insurance company to pay for that because she did accept a version of my insurance. It wasn't the one I had, but if I had been my children or my spouse, I could have walked into her and made an appointment and gone to see her. And finally, I said, you know what? This is ridiculous.
I'm not going to live like this for the rest of my life. And I paid cash first appointment. She took down all the symptoms. They were the same things. I had been telling people the, for the last almost 10 years, and based on all of the intake paperwork I had filled out for her, which was over 15 pages worth. She says, you have Lyme disease and why is no one seeing this? She followed it up with,ulab tests, which were confirmed. And for anyone out there who's not familiar with Lyme disease. Not only is Lyme disease prevalent or present, but usually there's any number of co-infections present with the Lyme disease and other viruses, things like mold toxicity, things like heavy metal toxicity. Your, your, your body is basically a toxic heap of trash inside. And especially when you've been living like this for 10 years.
And that day she told me, listen, it's going to take you two to five years to recover from this. You have been sick for so long. I was one of the worst patients she had. She had one of the most complex and worst patients, as far as the kind of shape I was in at that point began a new journey. Little do you know that when you get a diagnosis such as Lyme disease and, a complex chronic illnesses, the treatment often puts you into worse spaces and places than you have been through just living with it. And that journey was to me, the worst part, the most difficult part, but it also brought about the most learning experiences that I would have never had. I see the world in such a different place, in a different space, and then in just a different way than I did before. I'm very, very grateful for this journey and to be this far along in it, to where I can actually talk to people now, because the, the self-care that comes along with this is never ending. So, you know, one day you may be able to work for an hour and the next day you're in bed for all day, because you don't know how your body's going to perform, and you do the best you can to get the max performance out of it.
Passionistas: You're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast, and our interview Chandra Beckman to learn more about Shondra and her business Soul Central Coaching and Consulting, visit Chandra beckman.com., visit Chandra, beckman.com. Now here's more of our interview with Chandra.
You said that this has made you look at the world differently. How did you look at it before? And how do you look at it now?
Chandra: Before? I don't think I was as accepting of people, accepting of others. The perspectives that I see now are so much more interesting and enriching to me. This has really allowed me to really expand that view.
Passionistas: But at what point did you leave the Air Force and why did you make that decision?
Chandra: I actually ended up retiring at the time that I became so sick. I couldn't function normally in the military, you go through what's called a medical evaluation board so that they can take a look at your case, determine whether or not you're capable of remaining on active duty to serve. And at the time when I should have went through one of those, I had already had an approved retirement date. I was getting CA better care than what that the military could provide. And so if we had pursued the medical evaluation board, it would have just extended my time on active duty a lot longer at that point I was allowed to retire. So I actually did 20 years.
Passionistas: So you have had intimate experience with our health care system. What have you taken away from those experiences and how has it made you look at the system that exists in the United States?
Chandra: While I was in it, it was atrocious at that point though, I did not realize how handcuffed, how not blind, but there are blinders on our medical system and how entrenched they are in one way of medicine. And it is not the individual medical care providers faults. It is the system that has been created through the insurance companies, through the pharmaceutical companies and the system that our nation has bought into, if you will, and there's history behind. If anyone wants to go look into it, I think it started back in about the 20 1920s when we kind of discarded the other medical care options. And now I feel so sorry, I guess, for people that are stuck in that system, I feel empathy for the people having to work within it and having to go to work day in and day out and not have answers for people or not be allowed to take the time, to really sit down and understand people, understand why things are happening.
And that's, what's required in order for wellness to thrive in order for healthcare to be healthcare instead of sick care. And when you get out into the integrative and functional health medicine options and natural pathic, there is a, a plethora of options available to people yet we're not even educated on them. And I think that was a big thing for me is these options are available. These options were out there. They're legal, they're in the United States yet. None of my conventional medicine doctors even knew about them. So, you know, it's one thing if they could tell me about them so I could go pursue them, even if I had to do it at my own cost, but they aren't even educated on them.
Passionistas: And you would have to do them at your own cost, which as you said earlier, is prohibitive to people who don't have those means.
Chandra: Absolutely. And I'll tell you, that's one of the big things that I had to let go of, you know, the first six, eight, maybe even 12 months of recovery, once I was accurately diagnosed, I would hurt. I would feel for the thousands, if not millions of people in the United States that are suffering and you know, what we would consider S you know, the, the most well off nation on earth. And we have these people who are suffering because they can't afford this kind of care that is available and would help them get better so that they can be more productive in the future. How is this right? How is this even happening? Yeah. So I had to add that point, you know, I had to take a step back and say, okay, you've got to focus on using your financial resources to recover, to take care of yourself, to get stronger, to heal so that you can help those who maybe aren't aware of it, or maybe can't financially afford it.
Passionistas: So how are you helping people at this point?
Chandra: I am very fortunate to be at the point where I am able to be a resource for others. I was able to start my own coaching business so that I can be a source of education, a source of resources, a source of accountability for those that are going down this path. And I won't even limit it to healthcare because the clients that I work with really don't come from the same path that I walked, but really about transformation and digging deep into yourself and finding ways that you can affect your own life in much more positive ways. And that has been very rewarding that I am now to the point where I, I do have time and I do have energy to help others.
Passionistas: So what are some of the services you offer?
Chandra: I offer personalized one-on-one coaching and my role as a coach is to help people with whatever goal they have. It can be a personal goal, it could be professional, it can be transformational, it can be a health goal. And we walk together down that path options and the resources that are available for them and allowing the individual to really dig deep inside themselves and figure out what is going to work best for them. And my role is to be a partner. It's not to tell them what to do. It's really to be a partner in walking that path of discovery.
Passionistas: What advice would you give to someone who's in a similar situation to what you went through and not getting the information they need to get better?
Chandra: The first thing is don't give up. That was one of the beliefs that I had from the beginning when I started doing my own research. And really, you know, as you're age 40 and you're in bed saying, this is not the way I want to live the rest of my life. And there's answers out there. I know there is, and I'm going to find them. And so for anyone that finds myself there, don't give up because the answers do exist. They are out there. And when you start exploring, you will find that the next step will become available. It will appear before you, as you start researching and having to dig in and do that work. And then the other thing I would say with that as well, is that nutrition, nutrition is foundational for healing. And so I went through a number of dieticians and nutritional consultants, and it wasn't until we figured out what nutrition was best for me, and really strengthened my body and helped my body heal, that I could really start moving forward. And that's different for every single person. And so it takes a lot of time to relate to figure that out.
Passionistas: And how are you feeling today?
Chandra: Today? I'm feeling pretty good. I, you know, when you're dealing with people with invisible illnesses, it's easy to show up and have other people look at you and say, Hey, you look great, but they don't know everything that goes into you just showing up for that 10 or 15 minutes or showing up and sounding happy for that 10 or 15 minutes, or the fact that your body inside right now, it feels like 65 years old, but your face looks like you're 30.
And so I am doing so much better today than I was six months ago and six months prior to that. Now in six months prior to that, the journey is very slow. And as a former fighter pilot, I just want to take the actions, do the steps that are required to fix it and go on. And that's been one of the biggest learning points of this journey is like, okay, the body heals at the speed, the body heals, and you have to have patience for it
Passionistas: Now that you're helping other people, what's the most rewarding part of this journey?
Chandra: I think the most rewarding part of the journey is that I now have an even bigger toolbox, if you will, to be able to help and empower others to grow prior to this, I had never experienced getting close to suicide. I didn't even understand it, but it was never something that I would consider going through this journey and hitting the, and hitting that black wall of, I now have a decision to make, I can choose to keep fighting and keep living, or I can choose to end this. Now I now understand how people can get to that position. I would not have understood that before. I now understand why when people say I couldn't get out of bed, no, you physically can't get out of bed. It's not like you're making this up, you know? And it happens.
Passionistas: What do you think is the biggest lesson you've learned about yourself on this journey.
Chandra: Self-Love kindness really becoming okay with the fact that you can love yourself and you can love yourself first, because if you don't do that, eventually there won't be anything left of you. I think that's really important. I know it's really important for women. I don't know how much this can apply to men or to, to anyone else who from an early age, we're taught that at least I was taking care of yourself and giving yourself that self-love was not okay. It wasn't appropriate. There was something wrong with it. And I think that that is probably the most important factor.
Passionistas: What's your dream for women?
Chandra: To feel free, to feel free, to be who they are, and to understand that other women can be who they are and it's okay. And we can all be who we are without condemnation without having to judge. And there's beauty in that.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Chandra Beckman. To learn more about Shondra and her business Soul Central Coaching and Consulting, visit Chandra beckman.com.
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