Navajo physician is a rarity  
Arizona Daily Star
Mar. 18, 2005


For Nazhone Yazzie, the path to medical school started with a dirt road on the Navajo Reservation.

As a child growing up in Oak Springs, a rural community in Northern Arizona, Yazzie's days were spent mostly with the books and with the goats next to his parents' cornfield.
But always looming in the distance was the dream of becoming a doctor.
On Thursday, Yazzie, 27, took a big step toward that goal and potentially becoming the fourth Navajo surgeon in the United States.
"This is a signifying moment," Yazzie said, after receiving a letter from the University of Arizona College of Medicine, revealing to him where he will spend the next several years as a resident physician.
The college held its annual "Match Day" Thursday at DuVal Auditorium, where 92 graduates from the class of 2005 learned where they'll be completing their residencies as practicing physicians. Most from the class of 47 women and 45 men are expected to remain in Arizona for their residencies.
Several medical schools around the country held similar "Match Day" ceremonies.
Medical students listed their top choices for where they'd like to complete their residencies and handed those lists in earlier this year to the National Residency Matching Program.
Officials from the the medical schools did the same, listing in order of preference the graduates they would most like to enroll in their residency programs.
Yazzie will now spend at least five more years at University Medical Center in Tucson specializing in general surgery.
Yazzie said his decision to pursue medicine was influenced by the high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes among American Indians around the country.
"It's rampant on the reservation," he said. "Navajos and Indians in general are having trouble with their hearts, having more triple and quadruple bypasses."
Yazzie hopes to specialize in cardiovascular surgery and wants to return to the Navajo Reservation in the future.
Yazzie was the only American Indian fourth-year student participating in "Match Day."
The UA is home to eight Navajo medical students, ranging from first-year to fourth-year students, the largest contingent in the country, said Jean Spinelli, a spokeswoman from the UA Health Sciences Center. The tribe is also the largest in the state with more than 298,000 enrolled members, according to 2000 Census figures.
The UA also has one of the largest groups of Indian students at the medical school with 12 American Indian and/or Alaskan Native students, said Nancy Huff, assistant registrar at the UA College of Medicine student records office.
The UA has one of the largest American Indian student populations in the country, according to the Association of American Indian Physicians, a national group based in Oklahoma City. Comparative numbers for other colleges, however, were not immediately available Thursday.
But American Indians are still one of the scarcest ethnic groups represented in the medical profession, said Alan Galindo, executive director of the Association of American Indian Physicians.
In 2002, fewer than 200 Indians were in medical school, reports the study on diversity in the health care work force "Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions" by the Sullivan Commission in 2004.
The number of American Indian students interested in going to medical school is increasing, Galindo said.
In 2004, there were 106 students applying to first-year medical programs around the United States, Galindo said, citing a 2004 study from the Association of American Medical Colleges. The report said there were 71 students applying in 2002, he said.
The association runs several nationwide mentoring programs and a popular pre-admission workshop held at several universities around the country for potential medical school students. Stronger support for training programs was a factor in getting more students interested in medicine, he said.
Betty and Paul Yazzie, parents of Nazhone, said they were "super-proud," of their third-born son, whose name means "In Beauty or Handsome" in Navajo.
Betty Yazzie said she'd like to think she had a role in getting her son interested in medicine.
While Nazhone was a teenager, there was a goat that had a large gash on the side of its belly. The mother and son went to mend the ailing goat and stitched the wound using Betty's quilting know-how.
"I'd like to think that being exposed to goats at a young age led me to an interest in medicine," Yazzie said. "That exposure led to an appreciation of culture and of anatomy."
● Contact reporter Levi J. Long at 807-8414 or llong