In her second year at Yale School of Medicine, Patricia Nez Henderson, MPH ’94, MD ’00, considered quitting. The academic stress combined with being the first American Indian woman to attend the school left her feeling overwhelmed and isolated. Adding to her malaise was the forced relocation of her family and community back home in Arizona, part of a land-exchange with a neighboring group. Moving is especially traumatic in Navajo culture, and these two moves left Henderson reeling.
Then she met Wilma Mankiller, the former chair of the Cherokee tribe, at a conference. A tearful Henderson poured out her woes to Mankiller. Henderson was considering withdrawing from medical school.
“She was like, ‘Are you done crying?’” Henderson recalled with a wry smile. “She told me, ‘Patricia, you have to stay at Yale not for you, but for other Indians.’ I came back, and said: I can do this.”
Henderson went on to graduate and launch a distinguished career in public health, last year winning the Ely S. Parker Award, the highest honor bestowed by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. The award was in recognition of her work as vice president of the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health in South Dakota, which she runs with her husband Paul Henderson, MD.
Henderson told her story Monday, September 17, during an hour-plus discussion with Yale University President Peter Salovey at the Yale Center for British Art. The event was the latest in the President’s Women of Yale Series, talks between Salovey and prominent female graduates. The series, Salovey said, is timed to lead into the 50th anniversary of Yale College’s admittance of women next year.
In addition to her time at Yale, Henderson also touched on her childhood and her career choices, traditional Indian healers and the need for more American Indian faculty at the medical school.
Throughout the talk, Henderson placed a special emphasis on importance of cultural sensitivity and historical knowledge in American Indian medical care and public health programs. Doctors, for example, need to understand the important role of traditional healers in Indian culture and incorporate them in treatment, where appropriate, she said. Henderson knows of what she speaks. Her grandfather was a traditional healer; watching him led her to adopt a holistic approach to medicine and keep an open mind about alternative treatments, she said.
As medical school wound down, Henderson, who had previously earned a degree from the Yale School of Public Health, decided to forgo residency and return to Indian Country to focus on public health. Her husband, a member of Lakota Sioux tribe, was founding a public health non-profit in his native South Dakota and she signed on.
“I really wanted to do something that would bring passion to my life,” Henderson said.
She got her wish. The center, which serves the northern plains tribes, has been a big success, and she loves helping the native community, Henderson said.
Her career path prompted Salovey to ask her advice for American Indian students, who constitute about 3 percent of Yale’s enrollment, on whether to go home or not after graduation. Her answer: Look to your tribal experience. Drawing on personal experience, she said that her inspiration derived from events 150 years ago, when the U.S. government allowed the Navajo to settle on its current reservation.
“Everything I do now is to respect that,” she said. “They made a huge sacrifice. Do things that honor them, whether it’s a career focused on British art or going back to the reservation and being a school teacher.”
Henderson said she focused on smoking cessation at the suggestion of a colleague. Skeptical at first, she soon realized the depth of the problem. American Indians smoke at rates significantly higher than the general population, with cessation and prevention efforts 20 to 30 years behind the rest of the country, she said. She attributes that to a variety of factors, including the use of tobacco in religious ceremonies, the targeting of Indians by the tobacco industry, and tribal sovereignty, which allows each tribe to make its own laws on tobacco use.
Recently, Henderson said she has become interested in suicide prevention as American Indians in her region have one of the world’s highest rates. She is still in the initial stages of understanding why, although poverty likely plays a role.
“There’s been very little work done in this area,” she said. “In 10 years when I’m sitting here, I can tell you all about it.”
Yale has made great strides in welcoming American Indians, Henderson said, but the university needs to do more, especially hire more native faculty at the medical school.
“You and I have a lot of work to do,” she told Salovey.