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Native American medical students find the route that’s right for them

By Michelle Juntunen

Kathleen Annette, M.D., Class of ’83, has traveled the country on a winding career path that recently brought her to a brand-new place — and back home again.

When Kathleen Annette, M.D., graduated from medical school in 1983, she became Minnesota's first Ojibwe woman physician. Today she is CEO of the Blandin Foundation. (Photo: Dave Bjerk)

On September 1, after 25 years with the Indian Health Service, Annette began her new role as CEO of the Blandin Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, Minn. There she plans to work with the foundation’s board and 26-person staff to accomplish its mission: to strengthen rural Minnesota communities.

She wants to do that in part by examining diversity in the context of race, gender, poverty, and access to education to determine how the foundation can help communities be their healthiest.

In her Bemidji office before the move, Annette carefully removes a photo from a memorabilia-covered wall.

Snapped 50 years ago on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, it captures a 5-year-old Kathy Annette with her two sisters and their mother, Eleanor (Big Bear) Annette, who’s wearing a big white bandage on her finger.

Kathy Annette recalls accompanying her mother to the clinic that day. As the doctor began stitching up Eleanor’s deep gash, he asked little Kathy if she wanted to watch him. She surprised him by eagerly climbing up for a better view.

Annette’s interest in medicine was further fueled in college, when she participated in summer science programs for Native Americans offered by the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus. The programs were launched in 1972, when leaders made it part of the school’s mission to encourage young Native Americans from around the country to enter medical careers.

After completing medical school at UMD and a family medicine residency in Duluth, Annette practiced at Cass Lake Indian Hospital on the Leech Lake Reservation for three years and became chief medical officer.

Becoming a leader

Then her career path took a sharp turn — into health care policy and administration.

Area tribes asked her to apply to become area director of the U.S. government’s Bemidji Area Indian Health Service. “The tribes wanted someone in the position that they could really trust, and I took to executive leadership very quickly,” says Annette, who was acting deputy director for field operations when she accepted the Blandin Foundation position.

The Bemidji Area Indian Health Service provides health services for more than 60,000 American Indians from 34 federally recognized tribes in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin as well as urban health programs in five major cities. Annette took the job and started traveling extensively in the five-state region and nationally.

Annette admits that she missed the immediate gratification of medical practice, which allowed her to make a real difference for patients in just days or weeks, but she believes her impact grew when she joined the Indian Health Service.

“Administrative and policy work can be measured in years, but some of the things I’ve been able to do also have allowed me to make a difference in many more lives,” she says, such as promoting clean water initiatives and better diabetes management.

“But it was time for me to make one more career change,” she says. “In fact, after traveling the country for 25 years, it was time for me to come home.”

Many routes to medicine

The summer science programs that helped inspire Kathy Annette’s career are now overseen by the Medical School’s Center of American Indian and Minority Health (CAIMH), founded in 1987. Following is a brief look at three CAIMH participants who, like Annette, are finding their own routes along what’s known as the Indian Health Pathway.

"I didn't know a lot about the significance of tobacco, prayer, language, and ceremonies. With CAIMH, I learned a lot about my own culture." - Christine Athmann, M.D. (Photo: Aaron Hautala)

Christine Athmann, M.D.

It’s late afternoon at the Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby, Minn., and Christine Athmann, M.D., is checking on her patient, a first-time mother in labor.

As she waits for the labor to progress, Athmann is happy to talk about CAIMH and how the experience helps in her practice: “It’s helping me right now, with this couple,” she says. “The father is a Mille Lacs Band tribal member, and the couple wanted the delivery to be as natural as possible.

“They’ve had some requests that made other doctors hesitate,” Athmann continues. “While I was more sensitive to their delivery plan, I still felt their discomfort until I asked them a revealing question: whether they would be having a traditional Indian naming ceremony. Looking surprised, the father asked how I knew about naming ceremonies. When he learned that I grew up on the reservation and have Native training, he visibly relaxed.”

Rediscovering traditions

Athmann was born on the White Earth Reservation near Mahnomen, Minn. Her mother was a tribal member but knew little of her family’s Native American cultural traditions because many of her elder relatives had been placed in a boarding school off the reservation.

In high school, Athmann rediscovered those traditions when she was recruited by CAIMH to participate in an internship that involved shadowing a physician and nurses in her local Indian Health Service clinic. She was hooked.

The next turn

In college she participated in CAIMH’s Native Americans into Medicine (NAM) program, and in medical school, Athmann and other Native American medical students learned and shared Indian traditions through CAIMH.

“It was a really a nice opportunity to be taught the things that Grandma never had the opportunity to teach me. I didn’t know a lot about the significance of tobacco, prayer, language, and ceremonies,” Athmann says. “When we would have culturally significant activities, I learned a lot about my own culture.”

Although this Class of 2007 alumna has just begun her medical practice, she knows already that she wants to spend more time in a clinic on the Mille Lacs Reservation and eventually enroll in a health care MBA program.

“I think that [with an M.B.A.] I can make an even greater impact, helping multiple tribes across the nation,” Athmann says. “It would be a great opportunity to be out there and be a voice for Native American people, and having an M.D. behind your name sometimes gets you heard by more people.”

Coridon Quinn

It was 9 p.m. and third-year medical student Coridon Quinn had just arrived home after a surgical rotation that had started at 4:30 a.m. at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview in Minneapolis.

“It’s definitely taxing, but also exciting. I really enjoy it, but the kids miss me,” sighed Quinn, as the voices of his two boys, Tristen, 10, and Rowen, 4, echoed in the background.

Quinn is a nontraditional student: The 32-year-old of Cherokee descent was born in New Mexico, raised in Oklahoma, attended high school in Pennsylvania, and received his undergraduate degree from the Florida Institute of Technology.

Reevaluating priorities

A frightening “wake-up call” put him on the path to medicine. After seven years as a biodefense research scientist in Florida, Quinn was driving home one night after work. He awoke in a ditch after his tires blew out and he rolled the car.

The experience made him reevaluate his priorities and explore enrolling in medical school. He soon met CAIMH director Joycelyn Dorscher, M.D. , at a three-day pre-admission workshop in Idaho hosted by the Association of American Indian Physicians. With her encouragement, he applied and was accepted to medical school at the University of Minnesota, Duluth campus. So he and his wife, Cathryn, packed up the kids and moved to Duluth.

A prestigious award

Last June, at the end of his second year in medical school, the American Medical Association Foundation presented Quinn with its prestigious $10,000 Minority Scholars Award. He was one of only 13 medical students in the country to receive the award, and his nomination included a long list of Quinn’s volunteer activities, including giving many science presentations at Duluth elementary schools and working with Native American high school students and college undergraduates in CAIMH’s summer programs.

In her nomination letter, Dorscher wrote: “Coridon Quinn has a gentle and kind manner, unobtrusive and attentive. It was easy to see that he had the qualities that would make an excellent physician. His rural Oklahoma upbringing exposed him not only to his Cherokee heritage, but also to the difficulties of accessing quality health care.”

Today Quinn feels confident that he’s on the right road. “I’ve had many relatives die of diabetes, alcoholism, and cancer. I feel, as a Native physician, I can help in the treatment and, more importantly, the prevention, of these diseases in our Native communities,” he says.

Madison Anderson

Madison Anderson, a junior at the University of Minnesota, Morris is taking her very first steps along the Indian Health Pathway, participating in programs that will help her enter medical school and become a physician, perhaps on the Fond du Lac Reservation near Duluth, where her mother grew up. But Anderson was a teenager before she knew anything about that.

Born in Pennock, Minn., near Willmar, Anderson moved with her family to the Twin Cities, where she attended a middle school that began offering Indian education programs. That’s when Anderson and her family reconnected with her mother’s Native roots.

“I feel like I found something to carry with me for the rest of my life, and I want to pass that along to the next generation,” Anderson says. “There’s something special inside of me.”

Learning together

Eager to learn more about her heritage, she enrolled in an Ojibwe language class, fell in love with beadwork, and participated in Native spiritual ceremonies with her uncle. Two years ago, she enrolled in CAIMH’s high school program, High School SuperStars, and this summer, participated in NAM.

She enjoyed learning about the subjects that would help her in medical school and reconnecting with some of her High School SuperStars classmates. Learning together and supporting one another in the classes enhanced the entire experience, Anderson says.

A bright future

Her family’s first college graduate, Anderson is now participating in the University’s Minnesota’s Future Doctors program, which will provide her opportunities to learn more about science, math, research, and the process of getting into medical school. It’s too early for her to select a medical specialty, but she does know that the Medical School’s Duluth campus is her first-choice school because of family ties to the area and the school’s support of Native American students.

As a NAM participant this summer, she worked under the direction of current Native American medical students to draw anatomy on a T-shirt — literally and figuratively learning precisely where to find her heart.

Michelle Juntunen is director of medical advancement for the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus.

To support the Center of American Indian and Minority Health, contact Holly McDonough Gulden at 612-625-8758 or

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