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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Member EarnsMedical Degree
by George Brennan -
Lauren Thornton is a rarity among Native Americans.

On May 18, Thornton, the daughter of Gayle Andrews, a former spokeswoman for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and a tribe member, graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., with a medical degree. Her father, Harold Thornton, is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.

According to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of the country's physicians.

Lauren Thornton, 29, earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, did some volunteer work with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal health department in 2008 and has toured reservations across the country with the Association of American Indian Physicians.

After taking a deep breath and a trip to Hawaii to celebrate her graduation from medical school, she will begin the final steps in a 12-year journey toward a practice in anesthesiology with a one-year residency at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles followed by three years at Albert Einstein Hospital in New York City.

She hopes to someday give back by working with the Indian Health Service.

What are some of the health issues among Native Americans?
"You could talk about the health disparities in different tribes. There are over 560 recognized tribes and many other tribes that aren't recognized dealing with health disparities. The ones we hear about are suicide and diabetes. ... For the Mashpee Wampanoag, it's a lot of alcohol and other issues. We're pretty healthy overall, but there are a lot of disparities that do go on."

What motivated you to become a doctor?
"I feel like what really motivated me is that I just love dealing with people and learning the human body. It's spectacular. There's nothing we can manufacture that's like it. I'm a very natural person, too, and being an M.D. that's almost an oxymoron. I think I contribute in both Western ways and ways of approaching the patient in a natural, spiritual way."

The Wampanoag culture recognizes a medicine man. Does that influence you as a doctor?
"I do respect it and do believe that it has some contributory effects for people and their spirit. Spirit is one of the main things with health. ... When we approach a patient and their belief system, we have to know about it, we have to hold on to it to make sure you incorporate that into the health care you provide to a patient. ... I think coming from a Native American background, I can appreciate that."

Is there any one person who inspired you?
"There are a lot of people, but there is one physician (Shanda Lohse), who has kept in touch with me. She is a doctor in Anchorage, she actually travels to corporations, which is what Alaskans call reservations. We would get on these little planes and go into these small villages. Getting on these small planes was scary. She was always a happy spirit person and she always told me, in order to do what you do, you have to have a good spirit, you have to love what you do and you have to know that your outcome will be positive. ... She would always take her time (with patients), even when she wasn't getting paid."

How did you make it through the grueling requirements to become a doctor?
"I have great friends at Georgetown. The only reason I probably made it through was because of my friends. It is very important to surround yourself with people who are positive and stay positive, not negative or bringing you down."

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