Greatest Person Of The Day: Dr. Patricia Nez
Henderson, Native American Health Advocate',
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Condensed by Native Village
Every day the Huffington Post highlights a Greatest
Person -- someone who is
confronting the country's economic and political crises
with creativity, generosity and passion. Recently,
HuffPost featured Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson, a member of the
Dine' (Navajo) tribe and Vice President of the Black Hills Center for
American Indian Health.
Patricia is the first Native American woman to graduate from the Yale School of
Medicine. For 10 years she has worked with tribal
communities across America to create tobacco control
and prevention programs. Her tireless efforts are
changing the way Native Americans see and use tobacco.
Below is Dr. Henderson's unedited
interview with the Huffington Post:
Huffington Post: Part of what makes you so
inspiring today is where you come from and
the path you've taken to get here. Tell us
about growing up on a Navajo reservation.
Dr: Patricia Nez Henderson: I grew up in the
small community of Teesto, in the southern
part of the Navajo Nation, in a home with no
electricity or running water. My father was
in construction, and my mother was a
stay-at-home mom. My childhood was
wonderful; my relatives lived all around me,
and since we had no television, we did so
much together to entertain ourselves.
HP: Describe your education before college.
I went to boarding school starting in the
fourth grade through high school. Before
high school, I went to school with mostly
Navajo kids. In high school we were a much
smaller population, but were the only
students to board at the school. I was
fortunate to have great mentors in high
school, to help me through and permit me to
do extra and advanced work because the
opportunities at my school were fairly
limited. They really nurtured a love of
science within me.
HP: When were you first interested in
Well my mother would say the first time she
knew I was interested in medicine was when
she found me at the sheep corral with
stethoscope, listening to the lambs' hearts
beat. I was 3 or 4 years old then. I'd say
my grandfather made me the most interested.
He was a Navajo medicine man, whom many
patients would travel long distances to see.
Medicine men are so significant in Navajo
culture because they act as physicians and
priests simultaneously. I saw my grandfather
helping both body and mind in a
comprehensive way, and knew that I wanted to
continue that work somehow.
HP: Going to college can be challenging for
anyone leaving home for the first time.
Describe the experience of leaving your
reservation to go to the University of
Arizona. What obstacles did you face during
your time there?
As a senior I applied to one school, the
University of Arizona. Going there was a
huge adjustment and challenge. I went from
being in the company of so many native
classmates who were like family, to being a
1 percent minority in a school of 35,000
students. So much of the social scene at UA
was so foreign to me and it was very
difficult at first. The few of us Navajos
there were instantly drawn to each other,
and we helped and supported each other. I
was usually the only native student in my
classes, especially in the sciences, but was
fortunate to have the support of my family
who kept telling me to stick with it, and
not to give up. I graduated with a degree in
biochemistry and took a year off.
HP: What did you do in that year off?
PNH: This is difficult for me to talk about. My family
was forced to move as part of Navajo-Hopi Indian
Relocation, where over 10,000 people were displaced from
their homes. Moving is not a concept widely embraced in
the Navajo culture. Navajos often bury their children's
umbilical cords in the land to tie them to it.
Obviously, this was a very traumatizing experience for
us, and proved to be a critical time in my life during
which I realized I really needed to stay on the road of
HP: After dealing with relocation for a year you
enrolled at Yale for Masters in Public Health. Describe
PNH: It was a two-year masters program, and a wonderful
experience. It presented health in a comfortable,
familiar way with case studies where culture and social
issues were addressed. It was done in a way that was
very sensitive and gave me such an encouraging
introduction to Yale.
HP: You're the first Native American woman to graduate
from Yale Medical School. What was the best part of your
PNH: It was incredible to be in an environment where I
had access to the best of everything: research,
professors and facilities. For me having my classmates
from all over was very exciting. To be a part of that
was such a blessing and an honor.
HP: What has been your biggest obstacle?
PNH: My biggest obstacle occurred during the first and
second year of medical school. Being the only American
Indian student at Yale Med, 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.
HP: How has your career evolved over time?
PNH: 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. I now 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.
HP: As a Native American doctor, you have a special
opportunity to be a forceful advocate for Indian health
initiatives. What are the most important health problems
facing native communities and what are you doing to
PNH: Research on the health of native tribes shows a
high prevalence of suicide, cardiovascular disease,
cancer, diabetes and alcoholism. What I've chosen to do
is address one issue that causes so many of these
problems: commercial tobacco. Projects have included
development of culturally tailored cessation programs,
development of web-based prevention programs for Native
youth, and successfully mobilizing the Navajo Nation
towards a commercial tobacco-free legislation. We've
made it our goal to have commercial tobacco prohibited
in all public places in Navajo Nation, including
HP: Politicians in this country often overlook native
American issues. If you had the opportunity to speak
with President Obama, what would you tell him is the
greatest problem American Indians face today?
PNH: There are 564 recognized sovereign Indian nations
in this country, and each is at a different stage of
development. It's difficult to generalize about all
native people so I'll talk about my own tribe. Many in
this country complain about a the high unemployment rate
of 10 percent. But think about this: in parts of Navajo
Nation the rate is between 80-90 percent. That's not
just "bad economic news", it's social injustice. Many of
the poorest countries in this country are predominantly
Native American. It's been that way for 40 years. If we
want to solve any Native health or education issues,
we've got to start at the root of the problem:
HP: How do you try to make a difference?
PNH: 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.
Black Hills Center for American Indian Health:
"Protecting Our Strongest Assets:
Protecting our children from tobacco and drugs.
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