Meet a Medical Student Paying It Forward
As both an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Arizona, I found a support system of Native American physicians, including Darren Vicenti, MD, (Hopi) and Patricia Nez Henderson, MD, MPH, (Diné) from my Tribal communities.
I also found programs throughout the University of Arizona Health Sciences that supported Native students pursuing medicine. A big part of that was my involvement with Arizona Indians into Medicine (AZ INMED), a program focused on helping Native American students thrive and succeed in health professions.
With Native Americans representing less than 0.5% of physicians in the United States, it’s important that we connect and support each other through our medical school experiences.
When I began medical school at the College of Medicine – Tucson, I wanted to pay it forward – all of the support and mentorship I had received as a younger student.
Long commutes for health care
I grew up in Flagstaff with my parents and siblings, but I spent a lot of time on Hopi lands with my grandparents. That’s how I developed a deep connection with my community.
My grandmothers pushed us kids to be healthy – they both battled illnesses. While volunteering at the Hopi Health Care Center and conducting research with the Tribe, I witnessed the high rates of chronic illnesses in my community.
Medical care for these health conditions isn’t accessible in many Native communities. I vividly remember family members traveling over four hours for a trip to the doctor.
Seeing the high turnover rate of physicians and a lack of cultural connection with patients was a part of what initially inspired me to pursue medicine.
As a student for the past six years at the University of Arizona, I’ve continued to be involved with my communities. My graduate research focused on the adverse health effects of arsenic exposure from drinking water on the Hopi Reservation. Currently, I am studying how H. pylori infection rates are related to gastric cancer on the Navajo Reservation.
Going forward, I want to go where I am needed in Tribal communities, weaving together traditional healing practices with Western medicine.
Creating community in medical school
I’m currently the president of the Association of Native American Medical Students chapter at the College of Medicine – Tucson. We host events to create community and provide resources to help us succeed in health professions, including talking circles and health disparity seminars.
We lean on each other when we’re struggling, from trading study techniques to helping each other prepare for board examinations. It’s also been helpful to connect on the health disparities common across different Native American communities.
We are fortunate to have mentors to help us learn about medical specialties and research, including Carlos Gonzales, MD, (Pascua Yaqui) and Jennifer Erdrich, MD, MPH, MFA, FACS, FSSO, (Turtle Mountain Chippewa).
Since many of us can’t return home for gatherings due to school, Agnes Attakai (Diné), the AZ INMED program coordinator, has opened her home to us. She’s cooked traditional meals, including soups and stews with tepary beans, corn and sheep. Those meals provide comfort and warmth in our difficult journey to pursue a health career.
Mentoring pre-med students
Another focus of the Association of Native American Medical Students is to work with the UArizona Health Sciences Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to increase enrollment of Native American students.
I know students coming from reservations often struggle with the rigorous pre-med coursework. Plus, being away from family is a big barrier for many Native American students. It’s hard to balance familial duties with studying and all the other aspects of pursuing medical school.
To pay it forward, I created a mentoring system to help pre-med students. I worked with our admissions staff to match pre-med students identifying themselves as Native American with current Native American medical students.
I’m currently mentoring several students myself. We prepare them to be more competitive medical school applicants – sharing tips on studying for the Medical College Admission Test, looking at specific science, technology, engineering and math courses, and reviewing their personal statements.
My goal is to give them reassurance and show them it is possible to succeed since we went through it ourselves. I hope this mentoring continues so that we can help future Native American doctors find success.