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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Indian Students Urged to Enter Health Careers


by Judy Gibbs Robnson The Oklahoman


Scalpels in hand, 32 American Indian teens bowed over cow eyeballs in a laboratory at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center one afternoon last week.

The teens were eager to cut into the bulbous tissue to find the lens, optic nerve and other structures inside the large blue-gray eyes. The program that brought them to the health sciences campus for six weeks this summer was created in hopes they also will find future careers in health-related fields.

The need is great, said Tom Hardy, director of the Headlands Indian Health Careers Program at the OU Health Sciences Center.

"Of all the minorities, the American Indian is the least represented in health careers," Hardy said.

Nationally, only about 400 Indians are medical doctors, estimates Jerry Tahsequah, associate director of the Native American Center of Excellence at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

If Tahsequah's figure is right, it would mean that .01 percent of the 4 million Indians in the United States are doctors.

Programs pay off

The lack of Indian health professionals is not for want of effort from Oklahoma. At least four Oklahoma programs recruit Indian youth through outreach to tribal communities, summer enrichment academies and college retention services.

The Oklahoma programs are paying off for the state and the nation, said Dr. Everett Rhoades, former director of the national Indian Health Service and a founding member of the Oklahoma City-based Association of American Indian Physicians in 1971.

At that time, Rhoades said only 14 Indian doctors could be found in the entire country. By the time he left the Indian Health Service in 1993, he was meeting Indian doctors in the field regularly.

"Golly, you go anywhere these days you're going to meet an Indian physician," Rhoades said. "I don't know the numbers, but the glass is half full, and it's increasing."

Some of the credit goes to the U.S. Public Health Service, which in 1993 established Native American Centers for Excellence at OU and three other medical schools across the country to recruit Indians.

In the 13 years since, more than 100 Indians have graduated from OU's College of Medicine. The record was in 2002, when 16 Indians graduated, Tahsequah said.

"I think our program is known throughout the country," Tahsequah said. "In Oklahoma, our success comes from being in the Indian communities."

History of involvement

Tahsequah and his co-workers regularly visit Oklahoma tribal communities, where they begin recruiting students into medical careers while they are still in high school.

Once Indian students reach OU, the Center of Excellence provides a support system that includes tutors and mentors and that follows them all the way through the professional school they choose, Tahsequah said.

Oklahoma's involvement in recruiting Indian doctors predates the Center of Excellence by two decades. It was 1971 when Rhoades and 13 other Indian doctors formed the Oklahoma City-based Association of American Indian Physicians.

Today the association has 310 members and its programs include the Student Enrichment Academy for Reaching Careers in Health, the program that brought the 32 Indian teenagers to the dissection laboratory last week.

One of them, Carmen "Butch" Falls, 17, has dreamed since childhood of becoming an emergency medical technician. Another, Hoa Nguyen, 15, hopes to become a genetic engineer.

Summer Fields, 16, who may become a pediatrician because she likes children, was surprised by her own reaction to the eyeball dissection.

"That was cool. I thought I was going to be really grossed out, but it was really interesting. I enjoyed doing that," she said.

The SEARCH program is limited to Indian students ages 14 to 17 in the Oklahoma City metro, but the association also runs a program that will take 60 Indian students from across the country to Washington for eight days of academic enrichment this month. Seventeen of the students chosen for this year's trip are from Oklahoma.

The students will tour the National Institute of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Indian Health Service and other federal agencies, said Cathie Parker, program coordinator.

Intensive program

Another program to recruit Indian medical students is housed at OU's Norman campus. Two Illinois philanthropists concerned about the Indian doctor shortage started the Headlands Indian Health Careers program in 1975.

For 18 years, the program operated a summer academy for Indian youth at a private estate in Michigan. The University of Oklahoma's American Indian Institute administered the program, and in 1993, the academy moved to the OU campus in Norman, where it continues today.

This summer, 17 high school seniors and college freshmen from across the country are enrolled in the intensive academic enrichment program to prepare them for the rigors of a premedicine curriculum, said Hardy, the program director.

"We've found that even though many of them rank really high, if they come from reservation schools, they often don't have the background necessary" to succeed, he said.

The students -- who come from Oklahoma, South Carolina, Alabama, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada -- attend four hours of lecture each morning and four hours of lab each afternoon.

"We just basically cram as much into the students as we can over the summer," Hardy said.

To date, 590 students have completed the Headlands program, and about half of them have made it into health careers or are pursuing health careers, Hardy said.

Those numbers may not be huge, but Rhoades, the former Indian Health Services director, said they are important gains.

"It's not always possible to show huge numeric gains. But boy, as a person involved in this business for four or five decades, I wonder where would we be without these programs," Rhoades said.

"We'd be a decade or so behind. I have no question about that in my mind at all."

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