Dr. Aimee French

Dr. Aimee French, a graduate of Etiwanda High School, stands at the entrance to the Corona Regional Medical Center, where she works against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Contributed photo by Jerry Soifer)

The first step, maybe the longest stride, in Dr. Aimee French's rise from high school cheerleader, shot putter and sprinter to medical doctor came when she transferred from Alta Loma to Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga to start her sophomore year in 1996.

In addition to a 1999 Etiwanda diploma stamped with highest honors, she has a varsity letter in track and field. She was also a cheerleader at the Eagles' 1998 CIF semifinal basketball game.

Today, Dr. French, 39, is a pulmonary specialist who heads the Intensive Care Unit at the Corona Regional Medical Center. She is helping the hospital deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a teenager, Dr. French had her eyes on a career in medicine. She and her twin sister, Amber, moved to Etiwanda because it was a smaller school.

"The honors program at Etiwanda had a better reputation at the time," said Dr. French. "There was more of a one-on-one relationship with teachers."

The result was a final transcript that showed Aimee had a 4.5 GPA, with nary a "B" sullying her record.

The transfer was vital to her career direction. The transfer was not difficult, she said, because she already knew Etiwanda students who were fellow parishioners at Hillside Community Church in Rancho Cucamonga.

"There are a lot of great memories," Dr. French said. "The education I received there laid the groundwork for whom I became. The teachers were mentors that guided me toward medicine. If not for the teachers I had there, I would have probably been in medicine but I don't know that I would have taken the path that I did."

Though focused on medicine, Dr. French did not allow herself to become a nerd, focused solely on her books. She said she was the school's smallest shot putter and discus thrower at 5-foot-1, 100 pounds, and she ran the 100 meters. She's now 5-4, 130. She also worked, selling clothes at Red Eye and Miller's Outpost.

She said her extracurricular activities and work helped her develop the communication skills she uses as a doctor. Dr. French was admitted into the UC Riverside/UCLA program which would give her a bachelor's degree after three years and an M.D. after seven. She became a doctor in 2006.

----- EVER SINCE THE pandemic exploded earlier this year, she has been on the front lines of the battle. The hospital has sent home 500 patients who have survived the coronavirus. Fifty-two have died, according to Riverside County health spokesman Jose Arballo Jr.

One who lived was James Njanju, an engineer from Eastvale who was hospitalized at Corona Regional from Aug. 13-27. He stopped going to work after he started experiencing symptoms on Aug. 7. He suffered shortness of breath, and his temperature soared to nearly 104.

"My life was in danger," said Njanju. "I could not stand for a minute. I was nauseated. I was passing out."

He was given oxygen but not put on a ventilator. He was administered a steroid regimen for 10 days. He also received a variety of medications.

French's visits were the best part of the treatment. He could not have any visitors, including his wife, Patrictia Ngochu, so the doctor soothed his loneliness.

"She checked on me every morning to see how I was doing, how the treatment was taking effect. She was a life saver for me. She asked how I was feeling, if I needed anything," he said. "COVID doesn't have a cure but she did make sure I was able to go home. I'm always grateful."

Njanju added, "I could tell by the way she interacted with my wife. She really cares about her patients. It's alway good to have a doctor who is on your side, someone who is rooting for . Some doctors do their job but don't ask how you feel."

Njanju isn't completely well. He still hasn't returned to work. But he had a joyful reunion with French in the hospital lobby on Sept. 25.

----- FRENCH, 39, and her husband, Michael Willemsen, 38, live in Eastvale with their boys, James, 8, and Jayce, 3. She said her husband has been her backbone through the pandemic.

The pandemic has taken its toll on Dr. French.

"Emotionally it's draining," she said. "It's better now. People are surviving."

All of Dr. French's training could not have prepared her for the impact of the pandemic, not even the 30-36 hour shifts she put in during her medical residency. She has worked seven straight days during the pandemic. Her one break was a brief summer trip to see her parents in Oklahoma.

"This is not something that you can prepare for. Everyone has disaster training. One of my teammates called us warriors," she said.

She claims no extra credit for herself.

"I am a small slice of that team," she said.

Hospital Chief Operating Officer Alistair Machoka said, "We are extremely appreciative of what Dr. French and other team doctors have been able to accomplish for our patients. Their tireless and heroic efforts, in taking care of patients affected by COVID-19, has had a significant impact in reducing potential adverse outcomes. Our overall success treating patients is better than many others, and for that we are forever indebted."

Dr. French has become part of the Corona business community, serving on the Corona Chamber of Commerce board of directors before the demands of medicine took her away.

Chamber President Bobby Spiegel said Dr. French's intelligence "is matched with people skills that allows each patient to feel secure, comforted and appreciated. She talks with patients, not down to them, or in big college words, eye-to-eye and immediately a respect level is established."

Dr. French treated Spiegel's late father, Herb, for his pulmonary needs.

Bobby said: "His father (Herb's in pre-World War II Germany) was a general practitioner so he demanded a bit more attention – and he never complained when he returned from his regular appointments. Aimee even made ‘house calls’ towards the end of dad’s life. Dad was not the only patient that had those experiences. I recall going with dad during one of his regular appointments, and as I was in the waiting room, numerous patients came in, and were sharing their praises about Dr. French."

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