By Michael Haederle

Marking a Milestone

Record Five Navajo Students Graduate From UNM School of Medicine

The University of New Mexico School of Medicine's 52nd convocation ceremony, scheduled for Friday at the Kiva Auditorium, will feature a milestone: a record five of the 96 graduating medical students will be Navajo.

The students come from diverse backgrounds, but most tell of being drawn to a medical career at an early age because they saw older relatives being treated for serious illnesses. They also share a determination to improve access to health care for rural and underserved communities.

Jaron Kee, from Crystal, N.M., a small community north of Gallup, will be one of two student speakers at the convocation. Nicole Lee, who has roots in the Sweetwater Chapter on the Navajo Nation, will lead recitation of the Declaration of Geneva in Navajo (it will also be recited in English and Spanish). The declaration is an updated version of the Hippocratic Oath taken by graduating doctors.

Kee, Lee and Joshua Sheak, from Upper Fruitland (near Farmington), all entered the School of Medicine through UNM's Combined BA/MD Degree Program. Students admitted to the program enroll in UNM's College of Arts & Sciences, and upon graduation are admitted directly into medical school.

Leslie Neher grew up on and off the reservation and graduated from high school in Gallup. Her grandmother suffered from Parkinson's disease and the family paid regular visits to Indian Health Service facilities. "I saw that people there who didn't look like me were taking care of people who looked like me," she says. "I wanted to dedicate my career to the betterment of Native health."
Neher, who will serve her family medicine residency at the University of Minnesota, says that while her family supported her medical school journey, "They didn't understand why I had to study so much!"

Tyler Laurence, whose family is from the Smith Lake Chapter north of Thoreau, N.M., also attended high school in Gallup. He originally planned on a career as a science teacher, but while shadowing a physician's assistant, he realized there was a pressing need for Native American physicians. His family medicine residency will take him to Anchorage, Alaska.

Sheak also completed the demanding MD/PhD track, which required several additional years of laboratory research. He will pursue a pediatrics residency at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center with the aim of specializing in neonatology.

Sheak credits the School of Medicine for focusing on ways to improve access to medical care. "I feel UNM is realistic about New Mexico being a state with high need and limited resources," he says.

Lee wants to focus on the underlying social determinants of health that drive chronic illness. She will serve her residency in internal medicine at UNM, where many Native American patients receive treatment.

As they prepare to enter their residencies, all five students are firm in their intention to return to New Mexico to practice when their training is finished. They are aware of studies showing that patients have better outcomes when they receive care from a provider who shares their cultural background.

Kee, who will soon start his family medicine residency at UNM, tells of attending to a Native American patient in the intensive care unit. Even though the patient was not Navajo, he shared some of his community's sacred songs, and Kee did the same.

"It was just this really meaningful interaction that we wouldn't have had otherwise," he says. "Moments like this show why we really need to diversify medicine."

Categories: Community Engagement, Education, Health, School of Medicine, Top Stories