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From Sonoma to pharmacology to LGBTQ rights

Professor, nonprofit founder, published researcher, caregiver, pharmacist, coach, athlete, military spouse – Lori Hensic has worn many hats since graduating Sonoma Valley High School in 1999. Now, she’s at the forefront of an international campaign to advocate for, support and protect the rights of LGBTQ military service members and veterans around the globe.

Hensic is a founding member of the Modern Military Association of America (MMAA), the nation’s largest nonprofit organization for the LGBTQ military and veteran community, formed this past May through a merger of two other LGBTQ servicemember advocacy groups, the American Military Partner Association and OutServe-SLDN.

The mission of MMAA, according to its website, militarypartners.org, is to “make a real difference in the lives of our modern military families through education, advocacy and support.”

This includes partnering with military and veteran service providers to assist them in working with LGBTQ and HIV-positive military members and veterans, as well as providing legal services to LGBTQ military families and advocating for the internationally-stationed LGBTQ military community. Part of that advocacy includes taking legal action against any anti-gay restrictions that have been imposed by the Trump administration.

With a wife in the United States Marine Corps and as a Doctor of Pharmacy with a specialty in HIV/AIDS, Hensic has a comprehensive, first-hand understanding of the struggles of the gay military community.

Still, she attributes much of her passion and involvement in the struggle for equality to her formative years here in Sonoma.

Hensic grew up in Sonoma, attending Flowery Elementary School, Altimira Middle School and graduating from Sonoma Valley High School in 1999.

It was during high school that Hensic discovered her interest in pharmacology. Working as a clerk at Adobe Drug (the current site of Pharmaca), Hensic developed a close bond with owner and pharmacist Dan Phillips.

“He was phenomenal,” said Hensic. “On slow days he would take time to teach me about the trade, and I think that was a really formative experience for me.”

Continued Hensic: “Did I graduate high school thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a pharmacist’? No.”

But, she says, Phillips and her Adobe Drug colleagues “invested in me as a young person” and she credits them with her ultimate career choice.

Hensic hardly even considered attending university as a realistic option. “When I was growing up in Sonoma, I didn’t even think about college – the fact that I got to go to college was mind-blowing to me. And the idea of doing post-graduate studies? I wouldn’t have even thought it was possible.” But, inspired by her experience at Adobe Drug and supported in part by the money she earned there, Hensic graduated from SVHS and enrolled at UC Santa Barbara the following fall.

She chose UCSB specifically because it was the only school in California at the time that offered an undergraduate degree in pharmacology. “I knew I wanted to do something along those lines, whether it was becoming a pharmacist or getting a PhD,” Hensic recalled. “I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted to align myself with that opportunity.” She ended up double-majoring in pharmacology and microbiology.

In order to support herself financially, Hensic worked at another small pharmacy called Federal Drug in Santa Barbara and was able to move up from the position of clerk to licensed pharmacy technician and effectively doubled her wage, relieving much of the burden of financing her education.

To cover the rest of her payments, Hensic became a caregiver. “At the age of 21 I moved in to be a roommate and caretaker for a disabled man named Paul Eriksen. I didn’t know what I was signing up for,” Hensic said. “I thought, ‘Oh you’re going to pay for my room and board? Heck yeah!’”

Hensic was also unaware that the decision would drastically alter the trajectory of her life. “We became best friends,” she said. “We were inseparable.”

And seeing the amount of growth that he had living independently with her fundamentally changed who she was, she said.

Before graduating from UCSB, Hensic was set on getting a PhD in marine pharmacology. But, through caregiving for Eriksen, she realized that she needed to work with people.

She applied for and was accepted to a doctorate program at UC San Francisco. “My entire application essay,” she said, “was about Paul.”

After finishing pharmacy school at UCSF – where she founded and coached the women’s rugby team – Hensic completed her clinical residencies at UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital.

Specializing in infectious disease and HIV care, Hensic became a full-time faculty member at Touro University’s California College of Pharmacy in late 2010. During her time there, she founded the first pharmacist-led HIV medication management clinic at San Mateo County Medical Center’s Edison Clinic, a program that is still running today.

In 2011, Hensic met Shaina Turley, who had just graduated flight school, becoming a U.S. Marine Corps pilot. They began a serious relationship, but under the shadow of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, “things were very difficult,” Hensic said. “As a same-sex couple, we didn’t get benefits extended to us. So, if Shaina was killed in action, the military wouldn’t have contacted me.”

Hensic and Turley moved to San Diego, and Hensic found another faculty position at UC San Diego, continuing to publish her research on HIV/AIDS.

On July 1, 2013, the day same-sex marriage became legal in San Diego, they got married at the courthouse. “We were in the newspaper and everything,” Hensic said.

As an active-duty service member in the Marines, Turley was set to be re-stationed every couple of years. So, in 2015, Hensic left academia and was recruited to run Kaiser Permanente’s National Regulatory Affairs Program, where she oversaw over 500 pharmacies in eight states. “I thought that this was the perfect job because I could go anywhere in the U.S. and work if Shaina got stationed somewhere else,” said Hensic. “Then, of course, she got ordered to Japan.”

Since early 2018, Hensic and Turley have been living in Okinawa where Hensic runs pharmacy services for the military hospital.

While same-sex marriage is still taboo in Japan, Hensic said she feels more at ease there than she does in some parts of the U.S. with less-progressive ideologies.

She recently helped to found an organization to support LGBTQ military families, because even after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, same sex couples still didn’t have marriage equality.

“The LGBTQ military community was under a lot of stress,” she said. “So, 12 of us got together and founded MMAA. It now has over 75,000 members and supporters.”

The path that Hensic’s life has followed has been anything but predictable.

In her advice to Sonoma teens, she suggests saying “yes” to everything.

“You don’t know what the door three doors down will open; it has a ripple effect,” she said. “Trying to accept any opportunities that you can at the beginning then teaches you later how to do it as an adult with a lot less fear.”

Hensic comes back to Sonoma any chance she gets and to spend time with her best friend Briana Platukis’ family. Even from Japan, she celebrated her 20-year high school reunion with her former Sonoma Valley High School classmates through social media.

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