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Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson





Year of Birth / Death

b. 1965


Medical School

Yale University School of Medicine


Geography

LOCATION
South Dakota


Career Path

General medicine: Community
Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson



Milestones

YEAR
2000
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Nez Henderson was the first American Indian woman to graduate from Yale University School of Medicine.
YEAR
2000
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Nez Henderson was the first to receive the Patricia Nez Award from Yale University School of Medicine, an annual award given to recognize a Yale School of Medicine graduate committed to improving health among American Indian populations.


Inspiration

Like my grandfather, it is my goal to help heal the Navajo community as well as other Indian communities. Growing up on the Navajo reservation, I witnessed my grandfather, a medicine man, interact with his patients. The patients seemed so calm and at ease while they were around him. Yet these same people, who often suffered from illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, would hesitate to seek treatment from the local Indian Health Service (IHS) until their ailments were very advanced and little could be done to help them. I soon realized that it was the lack of an intimate relationship between the IHS and the Navajo people that prevented them from seeking conventional care. They needed someone who could best understand their traditions and values, and at the same time bring the best of modern medicine to their lives. Not only was I born and raised in the Navajo reservation, but I also respected and shared the ways of the Navajo people... Becoming a physician and public health researcher, equipped with the cultural sensitivity that I believe is essential to the successful delivery of health care to Indian communities, is the route I have chosen.



Biography

Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson's grandfather was a Navajo medicine man, and many patients would travel long distances to see him. Dr. Nez Henderson is carrying on the family tradition by working to improve the health of wider communities as well as individual patients, as a public health physician specializing in the health care of American Indians.

While Patricia Nez was a student at the University of Arizona, her grandfather passed away. While remembering his life, she felt a renewed appreciation for the life-lessons he had taught her. She planned to go to medical school, but first wanted to earn a master of public health degree at Yale University to broaden her perspective about the health care system and the problems of health disparities among minority populations. The studies and experiences there helped her to better understand how social and cultural factors influence an individual's health and well-being.

After earning her master of public health degree, she remained at Yale to attend medical school. Facing both challenges and rewards there, she found that the faculty there had little experience with American Indian students in general, and that she was the only American Indian medical student on campus. She also struggled to bridge the gap between her Navajo upbringing and the methods of othodox medicine. She noticed that while this treated patients' physical and mental illnesses, it ignored their spiritual health, an aspect that her grandfather would always address.

During her last two years of medical school, she completed clinical clerkships with the Indian Health Service, where she was able to learn about clinical medicine and the health problems of American Indians. She became intrigued with understanding the origins of disease and illness among Indian communities and the biological, social, and cultural dimensions of the disease process. As a result, during her last year of medical school she decided that she would best serve American Indian and Alaskan Native people through a career in public health. "It had become clear to me that the health problems of American Indians were rooted at many different levels," she said. "Native communities need culturally sensitive public health advocates and researchers—individuals who can establish an intimate relationship with them while respecting their culture and traditions. My background as an American Indian and my experiences in medicine and public health equipped me to meet this challenge."

After earning her doctor of medicine in 1999, Dr. Nez was recruited to the faculty at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center as an assistant professor in the Division of American Indian and Alaska Native Programs. She was one of three new faculty members who joined the Native Elder Research Center as a "Native Investigator." This program, part of the National Institute of Aging-sponsored Resource Center for Minority Aging Research, is designed to mentor junior faculty. The goal of this two-year program is to prepare American Indian and Alaska Native health professionals for research careers and to develop a deeper appreciation of the health needs of Indian communities.

During the past few years, Dr. Nez Henderson's work has focused on reducing smoking among American Indians. While rates are declining in the general population, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a high prevalence of smoking, and this rate is increasing. The increase in smoking has been accompanied by rising rates of mortality from cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, conditions that are leading causes of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives. Her research findings have been presented at several national conferences including the National Institute on Aging, the Resource Center for Minority Aging Research, the Indian Health Services Research Conference, the Association of American Indian Physicians Annual Conference, and the American Public Health Association Annual Conference.

Dr. Nez Henderson also serves as vice president for the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, an American Indian nonprofit organization established in 1998 to address the myriad health needs of Northern Plains tribes.



Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

My biggest obstacle occurred during the first and second year of medical school. Being the only American Indian student at Yale University School of Medicine, I often felt alone and thoughts of quitting medical school entered my mind. It was a very difficult time not only for me, but also for my family. However, during an American Indian Science and Engineering Society annual conference, I met Wilma Mankiller, former chairwoman of the Cherokee tribe. I told her about the challenges I was facing as a student and the dilemma of quitting medical school. After she allowed me to cry for a brief moment, she told me, "Patricia, you cannot quit. You may never know in your lifetime why you are at Yale. But there are many more American Indian students who may aspire to go to Yale. Do it for them." It was this interaction with former Chairwoman Mankiller, as well as the support of family and friends, that got me through these difficult times.

How do I make a difference?

I try to make a difference in the lives of people through my personal and professional life. On a personal level, I try to live a life that is based on the Navajo philosophy, which is to live in harmony. Living this way of life inspires people to live a healthier lifestyle. Professionally, I work with the Indian communities. The work I conduct will hopefully impact the lives of American Indian communities in a positive manner. I also serve as a mentor to many aspiring American Indian students. I make a difference in their lives by having them believe and live their dreams.

Who was my mentor?

I have been blessed with many people who have served as mentors. As my primary mentors, my parents and grandparents have laid the foundation upon which I have built my dreams; the Association of American Indian Physicians, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center Division of American Indian and Alaska Native were all instrumental in helping me achieve m goals; and my husband, Jeffrey Henderson (who is also a physician and an American Indian) who believed in me.

How has my career evolved over time?

Initially, I enrolled in medical school to become a physician. During the last two years of medical school, I did several of my clinical clerkships with the Indian Health Service. This provided me with an opportunity to learn clinical medicine while experiencing the health problems of American Indians. I became intrigued with understanding the origins of disease and illness among native communities and the biological, social, and cultural dimensions of the disease process. It was in the last year of medical school that I realized that I could best serve American Indian and Alaska Native people by a career in public health. It had become clear to me that the health problems of American Indians were rooted at many different levels. Native communities need culturally sensitive public health advocates and researchers—individuals who can establish an intimate relationship with them while respecting their culture and traditions My background as an American Indian and my experiences in medicine and public health equipped me to meet this challenge. Consequently, upon graduating from medical school, I was recruited to the faculty at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC) as an assistant professor within the American Indian and Alaska Native Division. For the past two and a half years I have been conducting research among American Indian communities. I also serve as a vice-president at the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, an American Indian nonprofit organization whose primary goal is to improve the health of Indian communities through research, service, and education.