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
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,"
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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
"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
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."