Laura Ford-Nathan, M.D., knew at a very young age that she wanted to heal people.
“The feeling began when I was 4 years old, after my father crushed his hand in a farming accident,” she wrote on her family practice residency applications. “I have fond memories of being able to bring my dad relief with ointment and distraction.”
By the time she reached high school, Ford-Nathan was “definitely thinking doctoring,” and soon after enrolling at Grinnell College in Iowa, she set her sights on medical school.
Today, as she prepares to embark on a residency in family practice at United Hospital in St. Paul, she reflects on how her childhood, medical school experiences, and scholarships helped her achieve her early dream, and she contemplates her vision for the future.
‘Not your everyday story’
Ford-Nathan grew up in southeastern Minnesota on a small farm outside Winona and describes her life there as “not your everyday story.” Her parents, organic farmers, raise vegetables and flowers to sell at a local farmers market. They also built their own home with the help of Ford-Nathan and her younger sister, Sonja. Besides her jobs at home, Ford-Nathan worked as a nursing assistant through high school and college.
Life was good, but it wasn’t easy. There were periods when her family depended on food stamps and Medicare, and Ford-Nathan quietly admits she did not have new clothes until high school. “My parents just got health insurance last year for the first time,” she says.
Along the way, Ford-Nathan came to realize that “people who don’t have money or don’t have health insurance, it’s not because they don’t work hard or aren’t smart,” she says. “It helped me not to blame somebody for needing some extra help.”
Drawn to primary care
Ford-Nathan’s interest in primary care intensified during her third year of medical school when she was assigned to a 25-bed hospital in Glencoe, Minnesota, as a Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP) participant.
Like most RPAP students, who live and train in nonmetropolitan communities for nine months under a family physician’s supervision, Ford-Nathan gained wide-ranging experience. In the process, she got to know her patients—and herself— in a context that is rare for medical students, who more typically rotate to different locations every four to eight weeks.
“I saw lots of patients in various ways,” she says. “I would see pregnant women, for instance, and be there for the delivery. When I saw patients during my specialty rotations, often I’d already seen them in my general practice, so I knew their background. I felt like a part of the team.”
Humility and the ability to listen are central to Ford-Nathan’s idea of what it takes to be a good doctor, and she has been inspired by the writings of author Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
“One of my favorite quotes is about listening being the greatest form of love you can show. I think it’s so true,” Ford-Nathan says. “I feel privileged to have patients who share their lives, their stories, their struggles, and their joys.”
Ford-Nathan received honors for her RPAP rotation as well as for her rotations in obstetrics, medicine, dermatology, and psychiatry. And she was nominated by her peers to the Gold Humanism Honor Society, which recognizes “excellence in clinical care, leadership, compassion, and dedication to service.”
By any measure, she is a worthy recipient of the 2008-09 N. L. Gault, M.D., Honorary Scholarship, named for the beloved former dean and alumnus of the Medical School who died of pancreatic cancer in December. The scholarship was established in 1993 by alumnus Royal C. Gray, M.D., Ph.D., who was a member of the Medical School faculty throughout his professional career. Initially Gray’s student, Gault eventually became the professor’s personal physician.
Shortly before Gray died at the age of 96, he established the Gault Honorary Scholarship to honor his longtime friend and to recognize and support outstanding medical students who exemplify Gault’s qualities.
In her first year of medical school, Ford-Nathan was awarded the Royal C. and Mary H. Gray Scholarship—established by Gray in 1988 for academically qualified students from rural Minnesota needing financial assistance to attend medical school. In her second and third years, she received the Nathan Lifson, Irving Lifson, and Gilda Lifson Bronsztein Endowment scholarship (twice), and the Rosanne H. Silverman, Zollie A. Dworsky, and Frances and Myer Silverman Endowed Scholarship.
Setting new sights
Ford-Nathan is deeply grateful for the scholarships and says the encouragement and moral support they convey has been just as meaningful to her as the financial assistance.
“It is such a wonderful feeling because I can follow my dream of doing family practice, hopefully in an underserved community,” she says. “I’m still graduating with $141,000 in loans—a scary, scary amount—but that’s $30,000 less than the average for medical students at our school this year.”
After completing her residency, she hopes eventually to establish a free or pay-what-you-can clinic with her husband, David Nathan.
She expects health care will shift significantly toward preventive care and universal access in her lifetime. “I don’t see how it can’t,” she says. “The pursuit of happiness is a right in the United States, and you can’t be happy if you don’t feel well, if your belly isn’t full enough, and if you don’t have a safe place to live.”
By Kristine Mortensen