To people who knew him at his high school in California, Gunnar Whealy, now a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), seemed like a typical student with everything going for him. He had good grades, knew he wanted to be a doctor someday, went to the gym every morning before school and had a part-time job. He even owned his own truck – a Ford Explorer – and had already been awarded a college scholarship. But what Whealy's teachers and friends didn't know was that outside his school's walls, he led a very unconventional life for a 16-year-old: Whealy was homeless.
"In December 2008, two days after my 16th birthday, my dad came home looking more serious than I had ever seen him; he had lost his job," Whealy recalls. "As it turned out, he wouldn't find another job for six months. What I didn't fully grasp at the time was how much everything was about to change for my family."
The family's home went into foreclosure, and they were forced to relocate to Arizona for a job opportunity. But Whealy's plans afforded him little flexibility.
"I had already been accepted to college in Sacramento for the following year since I was finishing high school in three years," he explains. "I had only applied to one school and already had my scholarship. When I looked into moving to Arizona, I realized I'd have to repeat my junior year there because of the way credits worked, forfeiting my acceptance and scholarship. I was also worried about delaying medical school or possibly not being able to go at all. It was a tough situation to navigate."
Whealy and his parents made the difficult decision for him to stay behind to complete his final year in high school in California while the rest of his family moved to Arizona. But they felt good about the decision because they found a place for Whealy to live for the year. So the family moved to Arizona and Whealy moved to his new home, but their carefully laid plans quickly unraveled.
"When the family I was staying with began fostering children, the house became too full for me to live there," Whealy recalls. "Everything came apart in small, incremental steps. Suddenly, I found myself living on the streets in my truck.
"Looking back, being homeless was obviously not a good plan, and I would do things differently if I had known the outcome then. But since I was already in the middle of it, I didn't feel like I could quit halfway through the school year. I looked up one day and couldn't stop it from happening. I physically didn't have anyone to stay with. Each day became something I had to get through. I had to wake up, go to school, eat, shower, and sleep."
Whealy didn't tell his parents he was living in his truck, instead telling them he was staying with friends. In reality, he parked the Explorer in a grocery store parking lot at night to sleep, while his daily gym routine meant he had a place to shower each morning, and his part-time job at a sandwich shop meant he had enough food to eat.
"I'd call my mom every night to let her know I was safe. I didn't tell anyone I didn't have a place to live," Whealy says. "It was a scary and stressful time. During that period of my life, I certainly grew up a lot and became my own man. My family was trying to figure out how to survive, and I was having to make very adult decisions."
Whealy says his motivation to become a doctor is what helped him get through each day.
"Being homeless was a hassle," Whealy quips, grinning at his understatement. "Since my freshman year in high school, I was telling people I was going to be a doctor when I grew up. I don't know exactly where that idea came from. I don't have any family members who are doctors, and I didn't know any physicians at that time. I think I always knew being a doctor was my calling."
With his goal in mind, Whealy worked to achieve good grades and graduated high school as planned. He said his time living as a homeless teen taught him resilience, which would get him through other difficult moments in the coming years. Whealy went to college, but his school had financial difficulties and decreased the number of class offerings available. He was not able to get the core course requirements he needed, ultimately forcing him to transfer schools.
But these hardships only strengthened his resolve to become a physician, and after graduating from college in Arizona with a degree in biomedical science and a minor in chemistry, Whealy applied and was accepted to MCW to achieve his dream.
In coming to Milwaukee, Whealy says he felt settled for the first time since he was 16-years-old.
"As a student at MCW, my life has stabilized," Whealy reflects. "I have been moving from place to place for 10 years, and now I feel like I've landed somewhere. Milwaukee is a great place to land, and MCW feels like home."
But finding a home in Milwaukee hasn't just been metaphorical. Once homeless, Whealy now owns a house close to the MCW Milwaukee campus, living with the first roommates he's had in his life – all MCW students.
"I have these moments when I'm walking to my house and I feel like I'm in a movie," Whealy says. "It's peaceful in Wisconsin. It's definitely a new experience for me."
Despite having a home now, Whealy says his experiences have altered his view of people who live in poverty and may become his patients one day.
"When I'm with my own patients, the ones who are dealing with health issues brought on by poverty or who can only afford to eat fast food, I will understand it because I have lived it; those people are my people," he says. "My family isn't wealthy. I'm coming from the same place as that person who is standing on the side of the road, trying to get help. I'm not proud of my experiences, but I'm not ashamed of them either, and I know I'll have a unique solidarity with my patients because of them."
And while Whealy still has years of training left before fulfilling his dream, he knows his past experiences will see him through.
"My goal to treat patients someday was always in the front of my mind through high school and college, helping me to push through the obstacles," he says. "It got me to this point in my life where I know there is nothing I can't do."