Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 10, 2004 - Issue 104


pictograph divider


Doctor Sets Sights High

by Hannelore Sudermann The Spokesman Review
credits: Colin Mulvany - The Spokesman-Review

Doctor and kidsDr. Kim Cunningham-Hartwig never thought about the odds.

A Nez Perce from Lapwai, Idaho, in a country where only 54 percent of Native people finish high school, she graduated with honors.

And 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.

After 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 in 1997.

Cunningham-Hartwig 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, besides.

"Basketball 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 their encouragement.

"She never did think there was an obstacle in her way," said Bill Picard, a member of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee and the tribe's 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."

The 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.

"By 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."

For 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.

Though 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.

"She 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."

She also wanted to be the best at basketball. As a teen, there were no seasons to her life, just practice and play every day.

She 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.

"She 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 aggressive."

But off the floor she was quiet, an honors student and the salutatorian of her senior class.

Her 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.

College 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 said.

But 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.

"I kind of wanted to get away," she said. "I wanted to leave, and I never thought I was going to go back."

The 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 scholarship.

"And he said I didn't even have to play basketball," said Cunningham-Hartwig, laughing at the notion of college without basketball.

She accepted immediately.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," she said. "I didn't know Loyola was private. I didn't know it was Jesuit."

She did know the Los Angeles Lakers sometimes practiced on the school's basketball court. That was enough.

She first set eyes on the campus the day her family dropped her off for fall semester. She was awed.

"I 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.

"Through 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."

But Loyola was the right place for her, with its rigorous education and its low student-teacher ratio, perfect preparation for medical school.

By 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.

Instead 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.

"I 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."

Cunningham-Hartwig 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.

During 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.

"In high school, I was voted most likely to succeed, and he was voted class clown," she said.

But a friendship and then love quickly grew, and they were married before she started her first year as a medical student.

Cunningham-Hartwig trained through the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) medical education program at the University of Idaho.

That first year, at 26, she also had her first child, Emma.

"For 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 ways."

After Cunningham-Hartwig had Emma, a lot of people didn't think she'd return to medical school.

"Just 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."

She says she couldn't have done it without her husband, a carpenter who cares for their children while Cunningham-Hartwig is working.

"To me, family is part of life," she said. "It gives me perspective. Otherwise, medicine can consume you."

Her 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."

She 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.

With 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."

She 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.

"I think that we have to go home," she said. "The community has been so supportive. I feel like I owe something back to them."

Lapwai, ID Map

Maps by Travel

pictograph divider

Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!