following interview took place in 2006 when Erik
Brodt, Chippewa/Anishinaabe, MD was in his last year
of medical school at the University of Minnesota.
Today Brodt is in his third year of residency training
in family medicine at the Seattle Indian Health Board.
This year he was among only 20 family medicine
residents in the United States selected to receive the
American Academy of Family Practice/Bristol Meyers
Squibb Award for Excellence in Graduate Medical
What was your path to a career in medicine?
I was raised between Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and Cadott, Wisconsin where my parents work as teachers. My mother's parents lived near Bagley, Minnesota, which is just on or just off the White Earth Indian Reservation. That's where I spent about 5 summers until my grandfather passed away.
Are there any health professionals in your family?
No, I'll be the first. My parents are both teachers, so they encourage education a lot. They were very supportive. They made sure that we followed through with our high school and college education.
My younger sister is an art teacher. She just had a baby. My older brother is going to teach physical education. My mother is an art teacher. My dad is a physical education teacher.
When did you decide to become a physician?
Not right away. I went to college because of football. I stressed out a bit because a lot of my friends in high school knew exactly what they wanted to do. It seemed like a waste for me to go to college when I didn't know what I wanted to do. But in the ninth grade I took a personality inventory. Some students learned they could be 30 or 40 different things (professions). My results said that I could be a pastor or a doctor. Those are the two professions that fit my personality. I was like, Wow.
High school wasn't very difficult for me. I went to Chippewa Falls High School in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. It was a big school. I did well in athletics. That's what took me to college. I went one year to the University of Wisconsin River Falls. Then I transferred to Bethel College in Arden Hills, Minnesota.
At Bethel I met someone from my tribe who told me about the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota at Duluth [UMD]. She had gone to the summer program the previous summer and said that it was a great program. She encouraged me to sign up and try it. That's what I did.
The summer program is where I met Dr. Joy Dorscher and Dr. Bret Benally Thompson (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) who has been a strong mentor for me. At that time he was a Center student. He's now a resident in the Alaska family practice program in Anchorage. It was very encouraging to have someone from my tribe and band who had done the steps before me. He said, “You can do this. You have what it takes.” He was real encouraging to me.
Mentors are very important. What do you remember about the summer program at UMD?
I went there after my junior year. One of the things that impressed me the most was engaging in friendships with people who shared my vision of going into medicine and serving Native people. I hadn't met many other Native students in college. There were only 6 in my college of 2400 people. I also hadn't met many other Native students who were interested in medicine and had strong academics. I was very encouraged to meet people with like interests and a similar vision.
The summer program was vigorous academically. We studied the nervous system. Two years later in medical school the nervous system was taught in almost the identical way. The summer program helped me out. It gave me a strong foundation.
We learned the physical exam, especially the nervous system physical, from 6 or so medical students. Most of them were Native. I still see these people around the hospital. It's fun to talk with them. They're curious about where I am and what has been going on.
Was it helpful to be on campus?
Yes, in that I met a lot of the people that would be interviewing me later when I applied to medical school. I also met the staff who would be helping me along. When I interviewed at Duluth for medical school, I felt like I was coming home. Susan, the receptionist, didn't greet me with a handshake, as had been the case with receptionists at other medical schools. Instead she gave me a hug and was excited to see me. It was a very warm feeling. The people at the school are gentle and accommodating.
After my summer in Duluth, I went back to Bethel and graduated with a degree in philosophy and a degree in biology. Next I worked at Medtronic for 4 months, doing an internship there before going to medical school
What kind of internship?
I studied under the direction of a molecular biologist interested in neurological diseases. It was an amazing opportunity to be a part of such a fast-paced and technologically advanced research team. While there, my primary investigator allowed me to conduct experiments that were never before performed. I experienced great satisfaction from such pioneering moments.
What kind of interaction did you have with the Center during medical school?
Oh my gosh. I can't express how much support they've given to me. I refer to Dr. Dorscher with the title doctor in a very respectful way. But she's become a nurturing person in my life. She's almost like a mother in a lot of ways. She listens to us so well and understands our dreams and our visions and our goals. She understands where we come from and what's important to us as Native American health professions students. I can't believe that she's not an auntie or something because she's so supportive. She realizes where we want to go. She lets us run with our dreams.
As far as academic support, the Center staff go out of their way to do anything that helps us do better. They’re all wonderful.
What is your dream?
I will end up working in a Native community in a rural area. I'm not sure where. I see myself coming back to the Midwest - possibly Northern Minnesota because I have such strong ties there. I want to work in one of the tribal clinics, hopefully one where I can have privileges to deliver babies.
I want to be involved as a community member, not just from an external delivery of health care. I want to work with the community on the health of the community. I want the clinic to be community-based. I want to support nutritional and life style changes and work for positive social change. People need to understand that they can do a lot to prevent type 2 diabetes that ravishes our community. If we could cut smoking and diabetes by half, the quality of life in our communities would go up dramatically.
I'm excited about working with a lot of Native health professionals who are coming in this next wave. There's a whole network of us (physicians, nurses, administrators, public health) that are connected in a lot of ways. It's going to be exciting to work together to help actualize our dreams.
We need a critical mass. Some of our fortunate clinics have one or maybe two Native doctors. Most of our facilities aren't that lucky. Having a critical mass will make it much more possible to achieve a lot of our goals.
I see a lot of pine trees, a lot of fresh water. Maybe some wild rice on the lake. That's where I see myself.
Has your background in philosophy helped you?
It has helped me step back and look at arguments, situations or problems from a wide perspective as opposed to a cause and effect way. It has broadened my possibilities when approaching and solving problems. It fostered careful, rigorous ways of reading and writing.
Sometimes my background can get me into trouble. Some doctors make generalizations or absolute claims about things. I'm tempted to say, “Well is that the way it really is, sir?”
What experiences have helped shape how you'll practice?
When I was doing a clerkship on one of the Northern reservations, I gently entered an exam room and saw an elder woman. She was collected into herself. Her arms were crossed. She was taping her foot. She seemed nervous. This 80-year old woman didn't look up when I walked into the room. I wondered what I could do to make her more comfortable.
I thought she probably knew Ojibwe because she's an Elder, so I introduced myself to her in Objibwe. It was like I was faith healer or something. She stopped shaking. She looked up and I saw joy in her eyes. She stood up and hugged me. In Objibwe, she kept saying, “Welcome to our community, my friend, my friend.”
News spread through the community that I, a Native Ojibwe student, was in their clinic. I spent the whole afternoon going around the community being introduced to tribal members, including the tribal chairman and the board. I was introduced to everyone's cousins. I got introduced to everyone who was outside and visible. I still go to this community from time to time.
What are you looking for in a residency program?
All the programs that I'm visiting serve underserved people as part of their mission. The programs all provide opportunities for working in Native health care. Only one of the programs I'm looking at is university-based. The rest are based in the community [not linked to a university]
In rural health care, you're called upon to deliver babies and do lots of procedures. Unlike urban practices, you can't refer patients to specialists all the time. I want a program that is steeped in the problems rural people face. I want to learn the skills needed for providing rural healthcare.
Only one of the programs I am applying to does not have a Native faculty member. Having a Native faculty member is very important for me, especially when I may need someone to bounce some cultural ideas off. When asking about the climate towards Native people, Native faculty give personal and honest responses. It helps to know someone else will at least be sympathetic toward beliefs, which may be different from the majority culture.
I have a month in which I can hang out at programs. I'll get to know the areas and see if they feel right to me. I'm more of an intuitive person, so if a place feels good, that's probably where I'll end up.
What is your advice to Native people who are considering a career in medicine?
Seek out mentors as early as possible. Find someone in the community who can encourage you through the process and keep you accountable. Realize that medical students used to be in your position. Don't be intimidated. Speak with them.
We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for a lot of people who have gone before us and helped us out too. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Dr. Dorscher, Dr. Banally-Thompson, and the support staff of the Center. They called me and encouraged me. They'd have me come over. A lot of our mentors are currently Native health professionals.
A lot of the success we're seeing now with this new wave of Native health professionals is largely a response to all the work that Dr. Dorscher and others have done. They should be recognized because they put in so much time to support us and encourage us. It means so much to have someone tell you, “I didn't come from a rich family. No one in my family was a doctor. We had to grow our own food. We had to hunt deer because we couldn't afford to go to the grocery story and buy meat.” When you hear other people from similar circumstances as you, it gives you a lot more hope that you can do those things too. They've been an integral part of the process for me and for others.
Any other advice?
Stay in school. Keep going. Remember you don't need to be a biology or a medical major to get into medical school. Everybody has a different path. Ultimately you have to take some required courses to get into medical school, and by default you might get a biology major. But if your dream is to follow literature or philosophy or music performance or American Indian studies, humanities, do it. Following those dreams will help you relate to your patients one day. It fosters a more human side of you and helps you think outside of the scientific paradigm.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2006 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist, Roxanne Chinook, is a tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. "My art emulates a personal and cultural experience, from the spirit of the trickster to healing from the traumas of my past." For more conformation, contact American Indian Art from the Pacific Northwest.