New Northern Kentucky Campus Provides 'Blessing' for Marine

Staff Sgt. Sean Thornton joined the Marine Corps in 2009 for a variety of reasons. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to continue the tradition within his family. He also wanted to improve himself, both physically and mentally.

He served a combined eight years, five in active duty and three in the reserves, before being honorably discharged as a staff sergeant, a coveted position with responsibilities such as leadership, training, and maintaining an efficient platoon of more than 40 Marines.

Thornton had always wanted to serve in the military, partially because of family influence. His father served more than 20 years in the Marines, and his grandfather served in the Army. All the while, he also had a dream of becoming a doctor. He was in awe of the mystery, prestige, compassion, and challenges associated with the medical field.

A major, emotional life moment recently led Thornton to make the latter dream a reality.

While he was stationed in Japan, his mother was diagnosed with Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma, a rare type of head and neck cancer that begins in the upper part of the throat. Given its seriousness, he learned very quickly how important it was to have highly-qualified physicians available to treat her. 

“I didn’t understand her condition, what could be done or what doctors were saying, so I began to learn,” he said. “When the oncologist notified us that the cancer had been eliminated, my entire family was full of joy. It was then I decided to get out and pursue medicine as soon as I could.”

Thornton is now a member of the inaugural class of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine-Northern Kentucky Campus, a four-year campus located within Northern Kentucky University offering educational programs that complement those from the main campus in Lexington.

The campus opened this fall and is only in its first few months, yet Thornton already enjoys its close-knit feel. With just 35 medical students in the class, opportunities are available for one-on-one interaction with faculty.

Thornton had already become familiar with the medical field after working as a patient transporter at St. Elizabeth Healthcare while he earned his undergraduate degree. The hospital also happens to be the University of Kentucky’s medical partner that helped make the Northern Kentucky Campus possible. Students like Thornton who attend the campus have opportunities to learn alongside St. Elizabeth Healthcare’s team of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.

“I really enjoyed my time there working as a transporter,” Thornton said. “I would love to continue there as a physician.”

Returning to St. Elizabeth Healthcare would mean being closer to his family, and after traveling across the world in the Marines – to California, Thailand, Japan, Afghanistan, and more – that proximity to his hometown is one of the biggest advantages of attending medical school in Northern Kentucky. He calls it a “blessing” because he can be available to assist his mother on short notice.

When Thornton needs some extra motivation in medical school, he keeps his mother in mind. He knows for sure that he wants to play a role in helping improve the health care system, and he wants to help others, just like the doctors who helped his mother through her cancer battle.

The skills he has developed from both the military and medical school will allow him to do that.