Success Story: Patricia Nez Henderson

Patricia Nez HendersonWhy did you choose your specific health professional career?

For the past ten years I have worked in tobacco control and prevention. I enjoy every aspect of my work because it allows me to work directly with Native American communities while using all the skills I have learned in medicine and public health. Smoking is the most preventable cause of death; yet many Native American communities do not have comprehensive tobacco control and prevention programs. In many of these communities, rates of commercial tobacco use are 2-3 times higher than the general population. This, of course, results in high rates of smoking-related diseases including cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases—which are the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in American Indians and Alaska Natives. There is a great need for more American Indian and Alaska Native health professionals to address this very important public health issue.

What experiences did you have to make sure this profession was right for you?

Initially, I wanted to be a practicing physician—a dream I had since I was 5 years old. I majored in biochemistry at the University of Arizona with the intentions of going to medical school. Upon graduating with my bachelors of science degree, I decided to first obtained my masters of public health with an emphasis in health policy. This two year experience allowed me to understand health from a community perspective. With this enriching experience I applied to and was accepted at Yale University School of Medicine. My expectation of the delivery of allopathic medicine was high. However, to my dismay, this form of medicine was not as holistic as I had witnessed among our Navajo traditional healers. The experience caused a disconnect from my head and heart. Despite this I continued to pursue my medical degree. Then during my third year, I began to do some of my clinical rotations with Indian Health Service on the Navajo Nation. This experience made me realize that Native American communities needed health advocates who not only understood the etiologies of diseases but also understand the importance of social, cultural, and environmental factors related to disease prevention and intervention. By my fourth year, I knew I did not want to practice medicine, but to devote my career in public health. Upon graduating from medical school, I spent an additional two years in a post-doctoral program that prepared me for a career in public health. It is true; the longest journey for an individual is 12 inches: distance between your heart and your mind. However, once you reconnect your heart to your mind, your inner essence embraces every experience you have encountered. This has been true for me with my medical school experience.

Describe any obstacles or barriers to success that you encountered along your health professional career path. How did you overcome them?

I graduated from high school with honors so I thought I was prepared when I came to the University of Arizona. During my first and second year of college, I quickly came across obstacles that were definitely challenging for me. I decided to take some time off during my third year and worked at an Indian Health Service facility as a nursing assistant. During that time, the daily exposure I had with the patients and doctors encouraged me to get back into school. I think that was the first challenge, which was to realize and reaffirm that this is the dream I wanted to pursue. The second challenge came during my second year in medical school, where I was the only Native American student at Yale. During that time, I met Wilma Mankiller (first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation) during an AISES conference. I remember crying and telling her that I wanted to quit because the Dean of the medical school wanted me to transfer to a school that catered more to Native American students. I remember her words exactly, “Are you done crying? You may never know in your lifetime the impact that you will have on others. But there might be other students like you who want to go to Yale or want to be doctors. Do it for them!” With those encouraging words, it really reaffirmed my dedication and my desire to complete medical school and it has just been a phenomenal process up to this point.

What do you do in your current job?

Currently, I am the vice president of the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health (BHCAIH). It is a nonprofit, community-based Native organization whose primary focus is to enhance the health of Native American tribes and communities through research, education, service, and ultimately philanthropy. We currently have comprehensive research programs that address health issues, including commercial tobacco use, cancer, environmental justice, and others. As a public health professional, I work with tribal communities to define health issues that address tobacco control and prevention. I then identify grant opportunities that will provide funding resources to address this health issue. My postdoctoral training has prepared me to write grants for the National Institutes of Health, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and other health organizations. My role on the project varies depending on the type of project. Currently, I am also the project leader and investigator on several tobacco control and prevention programs, including the establishment of comprehensive tobacco control programs for the Navajo Nation as well as for other Native American communities.

What advice do you have for American Indian/Alaska Native students who are interested in health careers?

My advice for those students who are interested in pursuing a career in medicine is first to know that it is a very difficult process; but, if this is a true desire of the heart then it is possible. One key and important advice is to seek mentors at all levels of education (e.g. high school, college, graduate school, medical school, etc.). Students need to identify individuals who can help them navigate through the process. My mentors, especially those from my childhood, and those during and after medical school have helped me tremendously in my health career path. However, I have learned that these mentors can only assist me if I keep the lines of communication open between us. Today, I have several key mentors and I make sure I continue to stay in contact with them.

What would you like to see for your tribe’s future?

The Navajo Nation has a philosophy of Hozhó, meaning the beauty and balance of every living thing that surrounds us. This system of beauty and balance is very fragile; any element that is not supposed to be there can jeopardize this system. As a physician and as a public health advocate, I would like our tribe to embrace the philosophy of Hozhó in all walks of life. Hozhó means that you embrace wellness and are doing the right things for yourself and others to promote longevity. In tobacco control and prevention, I believe Hozhó is a very important philosophy. Over the decades, the tobacco industry has introduced their own form of philosophy into our lives, thus affected our Native culture, tradition and values. As a result, we have high rates of commercial tobacco use among our people and we embrace policies endorsed by the tobacco industry that continue to harm ourselves and others. I urge our Navajo leaders to once again re-embrace the principles of Hozhó and support efforts that will protect the health of all people. This I believe is the true meaning of Hozhó.

Do you practice traditional medicine? If you do, then how does traditional medicine interact with conventional medicine?

In my work with the Navajo Nation, we work very closely with a group of Navajo traditional healers known as the Hataałii Association. In their practices, they use dził nato’ (mountain tobacco) for ceremonial purposes. Therefore, our partnership with this organization has been vital in mobilizing the Navajo Nation towards the implementation of a comprehensive tobacco control and prevention program.