Kim Cunningham-Hartwig never thought about the odds.
Nez Perce from Lapwai, Idaho, in a country where only 54 percent
of Native people finish high school, she graduated with honors.
though many of her peers didn't go on to college, Cunningham-Hartwig's
grades and desire to play basketball landed her a full-ride scholarship
at prestigious Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
majoring in the difficult field of biochemistry, she took the same
rigorous approach toward medical school, passing grueling exams
and gaining entry to the University of Washington medical program
became a doctor last year, and today is one of only a few hundred
Native American medical doctors in the country. She is the only
doctor from her tribe. And she's the mother of three young children,
is what ultimately prepared me for life," she said. Thousands
of hours of practice, and winning, losing and living with high expectations
helped her succeed. She also credits her community and family for
never did think there was an obstacle in her way," said Bill
Picard, a member of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee and
education liaison. "Whether it was hitting a three-pointer
to win a championship game or going into medical school, she never
looked at obstacles, she just went ahead and did it."
basketball star from Lapwai is now treating Spokane-area patients
in the first year of her residency, and grounding herself for a
career in family medicine.
bettering herself, she's bettering the whole tribe," Picard
said. "A lot of children look up to her. But also, a lot of
adults look up to her, too."
Cunningham-Hartwig, 31, basketball and becoming a doctor were a
blended effort. Medicine first caught her interest when, as an eighth-grader,
she watched a doctor treat her older sister for a basketball injury
to her knee.
she didn't know any doctors, she had a plan. In high school, she
signed on for a competitive University of Idaho/Washington State
University program for teens from rural communities to get a taste
of the medical profession.
was in our first class of Medical Scholars," said Michael Laskowski,
former director and now a professor in the UW medical education
program. "She really stood out at the time, and she said she
wanted to be a doctor."
also wanted to be the best at basketball. As a teen, there were
no seasons to her life, just practice and play every day.
had a set of keys to the high school gym, and she wouldn't allow
herself to leave until she made 10 baskets in a row.
was a team leader," said Picard, who once traveled to Portland
with a friend just to watch her play with her Loyola teammates.
"She had a real presence on the floor -- very outgoing and
off the floor she was quiet, an honors student and the salutatorian
of her senior class.
high school math teacher Darrell Scott also points out her sense
of humor. He advised Cunningham-Hartwig and other team members to
do their homework even though they were at the state finals. She
came back with the state trophy and pictures of herself and two
teammates on the court holding up their Algebra II books.
recruiters had courted her for years. Cunningham-Hartwig got letters
and later phone calls inviting her to try out for teams. "I
think I was just overwhelmed through the whole process," she
when the teen from Lapwai was ready to choose a college, the calls
suddenly stopped. Cunningham-Hartwig later learned the schools thought
she had already signed with an Idaho school. Trying to set the record
straight, she called several coaches, including one at Loyola.
kind of wanted to get away," she said. "I wanted to leave,
and I never thought I was going to go back."
coach said all the athletic scholarships were gone, but he encouraged
her to apply anyway, promising a spot on the team if she could gain
admission. So she sent off her application and transcripts. Almost
immediately, an admissions officer called, promising a full academic
he said I didn't even have to play basketball," said Cunningham-Hartwig,
laughing at the notion of college without basketball.
had no idea what I was getting into," she said. "I didn't
know Loyola was private. I didn't know it was Jesuit."
did know the Los Angeles Lakers sometimes practiced on the school's
basketball court. That was enough.
first set eyes on the campus the day her family dropped her off
for fall semester. She was awed.
couldn't believe I was there," she said. Nor could she believe
it later in the semester when she learned that her scholarship covered
a tuition of nearly $20,000 a year.
this whole process, I was naive," said Cunningham-Hartwig.
"I didn't know Loyola was such a respected school. I just liked
the basketball program."
Loyola was the right place for her, with its rigorous education
and its low student-teacher ratio, perfect preparation for medical
her junior year, though, she was homesick and burned out with the
academic demands and basketball schedule. She asked to be transferred
back to Idaho. Her coach talked her out of it.
she scaled back on basketball and slowed her pace. "I went
to an elders' gathering in San Pedro," she said. Though she
was the only Nez Perce at the event, she found herself comforted
by being among other Native Americans.
felt this instant warmth and realized that it was Native support
that I missed," she said. "That was the time I really
decided that I needed to go back home."
graduated from Loyola in 1995 and headed home to Lapwai to spend
time with her family, take elective classes at the University of
Idaho and Lewis and Clark State College, and prepare for the Medical
College Admissions Test.
that time, former high school classmate Jack Hartwig offered to
let her study at his house, which was empty and quiet during the
day. She never gave a thought to romance.
high school, I was voted most likely to succeed, and he was voted
class clown," she said.
a friendship and then love quickly grew, and they were married before
she started her first year as a medical student.
trained through the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana
and Idaho) medical education program at the University of Idaho.
first year, at 26, she also had her first child, Emma.
many students, the first year is a hard transition," said David
Conley, an anatomy professor with WWAMI. "It was a tough year
for her, but she was a hard worker. She was unflappable in many
Cunningham-Hartwig had Emma, a lot of people didn't think she'd
return to medical school.
being Native in and of itself is a statistical barrier, and then
having a child. . ." she said. "I was really nervous about
going back for my second year."
says she couldn't have done it without her husband, a carpenter
who cares for their children while Cunningham-Hartwig is working.
me, family is part of life," she said. "It gives me perspective.
Otherwise, medicine can consume you."
first plan was to become an orthopedic surgeon, like the one who
tended her sister's knee. "But I wanted to come home. Being
an orthopedic surgeon at home, how many people will I help?"
she said. Instead, she chose family medicine. "It seemed most
practical to me."
finished her training in Seattle at the University of Washington,
earning her medical degree in the spring of 2003. She happily signed
on for a residency in Spokane.
three girls: Emma, 5, Iris, 3, and Grace, 1, she wanted to be closer
to her family and friends. "As I get older, I know some things
about my culture, but I don't know a lot," she said. "I
want them to know what it means to be Native."
is just starting her three-year residency at Family Medicine-Spokane.
When she's through, she hopes to find a position in a family practice
in the region and someday return to the community of about 1,000
in Lapwai as a seasoned doctor.
think that we have to go home," she said. "The community
has been so supportive. I feel like I owe something back to them."