Charlene Wood

Charlene WoodTribal Affiliation: Navajo
Current Position: Program Coordinator
Health Professional Degree(s): Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Doctor of Medicine (MD)
Schools Attended: Dine College (Navajo Community College) 1996, University of Arizona 2001, University of Arizona, College of Medicine 2006.
Area of Focus/Specialty: Family Medicine

“Go home often wherever ‘home’ is.”

Why did you choose your specific health professional career?

I chose a career in medicine for two reasons. One because a doctor I met stated that Native Americans would be more open to and comfortable with healthcare from a Native American physician, and I thought, “How true.” Second, because I was interested in the human body and all that it does. I was aware that there were many areas in the healthcare field but saw medicine as a place to make a huge difference in the way that healthcare is delivered to our people.

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

To make sure that the field of medicine was something I really wanted to do, I shadowed a physician, volunteered in a hospital, and spent a lot of time in various summer programs. The physician I shadowed was Dr. Mary I. Johnson, a pediatric neurologist. Dr. Johnson suggested that I look at a career in medicine. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue medicine so she took me to her office, clinics, and to the classes she taught in the UA College of Medicine. After this, I began to volunteer at a rehabilitation/ retirement facility. I thought seriously about working with people with chronic illnesses and terminal illnesses. I learned a lot and finally came to the conclusion that I wanted to pursue medicine after I spent time in a summer program called Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP). The program was intense but gave me a realistic look at the time and commitment level needed for a career in medicine. Other things I did to make sure this was the career I wanted to pursue was to request that the Office of Minority Affairs (now Office of Outreach & Multicultural Affairs) put me in contact with non-traditional medical students and single parent medical students. I asked them many questions. I am a firm believer that if you are going to do something with this much commitment, you had better be prepared as best as possible and see it thorough.

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

I have faced several obstacles. First, there was the obstacle that had to do with Navajo Tradition and the fact that I would have to dissect a body. In Navajo Culture and Tradition, you are not to touch anything dead, especially a dead body. Before I left Tsaile AZ, I had a ceremony for this. The medicine man said that before things like diabetes and heart disease, all our people needed was medicine men and herbalists.

He went on to say that now with these new diseases, we would need knowledge on how to combat these chronic illnesses. The second challenge I have had to face is the realization that there are many people who have a limited view of what Native Americans can and should accomplish. I have learned that I cannot let their view of me stop me or limit what I am truly capable of accomplishing. A third obstacle I had to overcome was the financial aspect of funding my medical education. I received the Indian Health Service Scholarship as well as the Navajo Nation Scholarship and many more. I applied for every type of financial aid available to me. Another challenge I had was that I was a single parent for most of my life and my son is very important to me. I worked very, very hard to keep balance in my life and give him the time he needed. There were times when my mind was saying look at all this school work I have to do but my heart, traditions, and culture said family first. The next challenge I faced was that I got married during my second year of medical school. So my family life took a new turn; I wouldn’t recommend others doing this. It was tough but I have made it through. Lastly, I have learned to ask for help. There were times while in medical school that I studied so hard, I knew my diagrams and information inside and out but had a difficult time answering exam questions. I finally got a tutor. My tutor helped me to see that I knew my stuff but because I am a Circular thinker (most Native Americans are) it was difficult for me to see the ‘linear’ thinking of the instructor. Once I figured that out I did better on the exams.

What do you do in your current job?

Currently, I have applied for my medical license and I am waiting. While I’m waiting, I decided to give back to my people by traveling around my reservation and giving presentations on the importance of: Staying in school (both high school and college); Careers available in healthcare; Transferring to a major university; Getting into medical school; and What is medical school like. Another thing I have been doing is to help with as many summer programs as possible through the Office of Outreach & Multicultural Affairs in the UA COM. I do this because I realize the importance of giving back to my people and Native People as a whole. I decided long ago that I would do my best to be a role model and mentor to those who would like to enter into medicine.

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

Don’t give up your dreams to make a difference in the healthcare field. Try to learn as much as possible about the field you are interested in. If someone says ‘no’ or ‘you are not good enough’, they are an obstacle; go around that person and find the people you need to help you achieve your goals. Stay true to yourself and who you are as a Native Person. Learn to ask  for help when you know you need it. Go home often wherever ‘home’ is.