Native American Heritage Month

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  • November 29, 2020

Written by Kelby Hunt

November is recognized as Native American Heritage Month in the United States. AMA data from 2018 reports that 0.3% of active physicians in the US identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. That’s just 2,570 physicians. Of those, only 1022 also identify as female.

Representation and diversity in medicine is vital to creating inclusive and comfortable health care environments. AMWA is proud to celebrate Native American Heritage Month and to share with our members some incredible Native American physicians and medical students. They have shared their stories and experiences as Native American women in medicine and expressed advice to young women pursuing similar careers. These women are paving the way for others, and we are grateful for their time and wisdom.

 

Shaquita Bell, MD

Bio:

Born and raised in Minnesota, Shaquita is Cherokee on her mother’s side and African-American on her father’s. She completed medical school at the University of Minnesota in 2006. Dr. Bell then went on to pediatric residency at the University of Washington, which she completed in 2009. In 2010 she remained at Seattle Children’s completing a chief residency year becoming the first Native American Chief resident at Seattle Children’s. Dr. Bell is currently a pediatrician at the community health center Odessa Brown. She is the site coordinator for pediatrics residents. Dr. Bell is a Clinical Associate Professor at Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington in the division of General Pediatrics. Additionally, she is the Medical Director of the Center for Diversity and Health Equity at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She is the immediate-past Chair for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Native American Child Health. She runs the Trafficking workgroup at Seattle Children’s Hospital and is a member-at-large on the board of directors for the Association of American Indian Physicians.

 

What is it like being a Native American woman in medicine?

Being a Native woman in medicine is a privilege.  I get to take care of my relatives/my community.  I have had to fight for things, but I also find that advocacy is easier because community invites me to the table.

 

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?

For other women and Native women thinking about careers in medicine I would say a few things.  One is that you should follow your gut/heart/or whatever speaks to you.  There will be many times where you will hear “that will be hard” or “you can’t”, but if it is something you want go for it.  The second piece of advice is almost opposite, it is ok to say no.  You will be asked to do countless things but you get to choose.  You get to choose what is your priority, what you have capacity for, and where work ends and fun starts.  Finally, I will say we need and we want you here with us.  The road can be hard sometimes (and easy/fun other times), but no matter what please never think that you won’t add value.

 

Elizabeth Fairless, MD

Bio:

Halito! (Hello!) My name is Elizabeth “Libby” Fairless. I was born and raised near Tulsa, Oklahoma and I’m a proud member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. I attended Dartmouth College and it was there that I first realized a career in medicine would help me combine my love of science with my desire to give back to my community. I spent a gap year doing research at the National Eye Institute and I entered medical school with a strong interest in ophthalmology. At Yale School of Medicine I fell further in love with ophthalmology and realized that the field needed more people like me with an interest in health disparities. Now I’m in my transitional year before I start my ophthalmology residency at the University of Oklahoma. I envision my future career to involve clinical practice in Native communities and continued research into disparities in eye care.

 

What is it like being a Native American woman in medicine?

Being a Native woman in medicine is both rewarding and challenging. It’s an honor to be in a position to help my community and I hope I can serve as an inspiration to other Native people interested in medicine. It’s also challenging at times, given how few Native physicians there are in the country, and the disparity is even greater in a small field like ophthalmology. I credit the Association of Native American Medical Students (@anamsonthegram) and the Association of American Indian Physicians for being a huge source of support and inspiration.

 

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?

My advice to young women interested in medicine is to not worry if your story doesn’t fit the typical mold for a pre-medical student. Bring your passions to the table and it will show through. The medical field is amazing because of the diversity of interests and backgrounds. Seek out mentors who share your interests and your passions. If you can’t find someone like you, that’s all the more reason the medical field needs you. There is a place for you in medicine – even if you have to carve it out yourself!

 

 

Jasmine Curry M2, Diné (Navajo)

Bio:

Jasmine Curry is currently a second-year medical student. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona with a major in Physiology in 2018. After graduation, Jasmine participated in a post-baccalaureate program and then matriculated into medical school in August of 2019. Jasmine is invested in lowering the prevalence of preventable disease in tribal communities through education and medicinal practices. She is currently interested in primary care, specifically obstetrics and gynecology.

 

What is it like being a Native American woman in medicine?

Being a Diné woman in medicine is a unique experience I would say. I often find myself trying to find balance between my traditional customs and the culture of medicine. Practicing my traditions keeps me grounded, as does keeping a strong connection with my family.

 

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?

There are going to be times when you feel like you cannot go on, but those are the times to push even harder. With that being said reach out for help if you need it, and remember all the people who are rooting for you and want to see you succeed!

 

 

Tomoko Wilson M1, Diné (Navajo), Black and Japanese

Bio:

Tomoko Wilson is a first year non-traditional medical student. After becoming a teenage mother at 18 years old and having seen the health disparities her friends and family faced, she was inspired to make a difference in her underserved community. This desire, plus her love of the human body, first led her to pursue nursing at a community college while working at a hospital as a CNA. That experience made her realize that becoming a doctor was actually a tangible career and a good way to make the biggest impact. From there she went on to Northern Arizona University to get a BS in Biomedical science and a MS in Biology. She is currently interested in Anesthesiology and youth outreach.

 

What is it like being a Native American woman in medicine?

I have to say that I have been blessed with a great Native community in medical school thanks to a post baccalaureate program I participated in. Without them I would’ve had a harder transition. They understand the difficulties that come with balancing traditional values with medical training. My son, my family and my culture are big in my life, and being in medicine requires you to make sacrifices such as missing get togethers and ceremonies. That has been especially difficult, however I know that the sacrifices are worth it. I will eventually return to my community and improve the health of my people.

 

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?      

Don’t be afraid to speak up! Humility is emphasized in my culture(s), so when I started on my path in healthcare as a quiet, introverted person there was a communication learning curve. But I faked it til I made it and that is my advice for any woman on their path to medicine. Don’t be afraid to speak up or be assertive. Also, prioritize. Know what’s important to you and make the necessary changes.

 

Maliyan Binette M1, Penobscot

Bio:

Maliyan Binette is a first year medical student. She got her undergraduate degree from the University of Maine in 2019, majoring in Psychology. After graduating, Maliyan participated in a post-baccalaureate program and then matriculated into medical school in 2020. Maliyan’s main goal is to provide access to healthcare that many Native communities do not get, as well as mentor the next generation of Native healers. She is currently interested in obstetrics/gynecology, but is open to whatever field of medicine that calls her name.

 

What is it like being a Native American woman in medicine?                                                  

Being a Native woman in a field that has been dominated by white men can be a little intimidating at times, but I love that challenge. We are here to use our voices and stand up for our people. It can be frustrating at times to have to keep educating people about what Native people go through, not just in the healthcare system, but in life as well. However, to have the opportunity to make real change and improve the health of our communities is a blessing I will never take for granted.

 

What advice do you have for young women who may be on the path to medicine?          

My advice to young women who are on the path to medicine is to keep your head up! I didn’t get in the first time I applied to medical school and was devastated. There will always be times we fail, barriers to overcome that some of our peers may not have to face, and we have to keep pushing through that. Medicine needs your voice!

 

Kelby Hunt

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