In Focus with Former White House Physician Connie Mariano
March 12, 2018
Born in the Philippines, Dr. Connie Mariano broke ceiling after ceiling by becoming the first Filipino rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and the first woman to direct the White House medical unit for presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“I pinch myself. I realize how blessed I am that I’ve had this life that’s been so amazing and unpredictable,” Mariano says. “To come from the Philippines, growing up there, I left when I was two. I think it really makes me appreciate being American because of all the advantages and opportunities I’ve been given.”
Mariano was born at the military base in the Philippines. Her dad joined the U.S. Navy in the 1940s and the family was always on the move. They lived in Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Taiwan and later settled in San Diego in the 70s where her dad retired and where she graduated from high school.
“I embraced the change. It was an opportunity to make the best of a situation,” Mariano says. “What it taught me to do is to adjust to every environment you move to because you’re forced to do that. You absorb the culture. It makes you more of a citizen of the world.”
The doctor’s interest in medicine evolved over time. She says the idea hit her after an OB/GYN doctor came to her junior high and described what it was like to deliver babies. After that, she says she knew she wanted to work with patients.
Because of financial difficulties, it made sense for Mariano to join the Navy and have her medical school paid through the military. She agreed to a contract that allowed her to receive her education through the military’s medical school in return for 10 years of service.
Mariano was getting ready to leave the Navy at the end of her 10 years. She had attended a business trip with her first husband to Palm Springs where she told him she wanted to give in to the life of a trophy wife. Those plans didn’t last long. She received a call from her boss telling her he wanted to nominate her for the position of Navy doctor to the White House. There’s a doctor from the Army, Navy and Air Force in the White House. She would be one of five candidates for the job. The two year contract consists of taking care of the president and travelling with them on Air Force One.
“My husband calls me back and tells me I should take the interview,” Mariano says. “He says you have nothing to lose, you’ll never get the job anyway. He was my first husband. I divorced him 13 years later… Nine months later I’m in D.C., it’s Christmas time, and I go for the interview.”
She was the only female out of the five who went to interview in D.C. She received the job on the spot.
“I told the person interviewing me, the longer I’m in the Navy the more stripes I’m going to get on my sleeve, the more they put me behind a desk. I am not a desk doctor, I am a trench doctor,” Mariano says. “You can put me anywhere in the world, I know how to take care of patients anywhere without being in a hospital.”
Mariano says taking care of Bush was like taking care of your dad, while Clinton was like an older brother since he only had eight years on her. It was difficult not to build a relationship with them, she says, because you’re with them day and night, in the White House and overseas. She says she saw the president sometimes more than she saw her own family.
“It’s exhausting. You don’t really get used to it,” Mariano says. “You pinch yourself because you get to see history in the making. You’re seeing these amazing countries. I tell the young doctors that I train that if you ever think this is boring then it’s time to leave. You should always get a thrill.”
She eventually left the job and retired because she missed her children. They were three and five when she started working at the White House, and they were 12 and 14 when she left. She says she didn’t want to miss anymore of watching them grow up.
After retiring from the White House, Mariano relocated to Scottsdale in January of 2001 to open her own clinic. She says with the lack of a winter and the great Mexican food the state has to offer, it was an easy decision. She misses the excitement and the people she worked with at the White House, she says, but she’s happy to be away from the drama and worry.