When did you start work/school at Mayo Clinic? I have been on staff since 1994. Prior to that, I was an affiliated clinical investigator for the North Central Cancer Treatment Group from 1984-1994. During those years, I ran a private oncology clinic as a solo practitioner (yes, I was on call 24/7!!). I picked the affiliation with Mayo because I wanted to offer treatment options that were not then available in North Dakota. My affiliation with the clinical trials group ultimately led to my being asked to join the staff in Rochester.
How did you become interested in or hear about Mayo Clinic? Actually, the very first time was from my 8th grade teacher, Miss Lucy Lewis. She was an inner city, African American school teacher. I loved her beautiful voice and way of telling stories. She told us how no doctors in Chicago could figure out what was wrong with her. So she got on the train and presented herself to Mayo Clinic back in the 1950’s. In 2 days they had the answer and in a week she felt like a new woman!
What do you do here at Mayo Clinic? What is your area of specialty? I am a medical oncologist in the Cancer Center. My clinical practice is concentrated in women’s cancers including breast, ovarian, endometrial and cervical cancer prevention, screening and treatment. I am the Chairperson of the North Central Cancer Treatment Group’s Cancer Health Disparities Committee. My research interest is in the Cancer Center’s Population Sciences Program with grants for outreach and research with American Indian and Alaska Native populations.
Do you participate or have you created any organizations, societies, clubs, memberships, professions at Mayo Clinic and/or Rochester community? I am on the Memorandum of Understanding with the Indian Health Service Advisory Board, a member of the Cancer Center. I am a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society and am a Councilor for that organization in our Mayo Medical School Association. And, of course, I love working with the IMSD students! My family and I belong to Zumbro Lutheran Church. Outside of Mayo, I am a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the American Association for Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society and the Association of American Indian Physicians.
How does working at Mayo Clinic Rochester location differ from your hometown or where you attended school? I consider myself a “city Indian” and love the vibrancy of cities. Rochester is nice for ease of everyday living, but I still need my city “fix” with trips to Chicago and New York City! When we lived in North Dakota, it took awhile to acclimate to the severe winter weather. Rochester, by comparison, is balmy!
Do you consider yourself diverse? I am Choctaw and Cherokee. My family originally was from Oklahoma. I am one of only 2 American Indian medical oncologists in the country. When I joined the Medical Oncology Division there was only one other woman on the staff. It’s good to see that change also.
What types of hardships or hurdles did you have to overcome to get your education or profession at Mayo Clinic? Did your diverse background have a role in these hardships? My first goal was to graduate from high school—the first in my family. My family was poor and my father died when I was 13, so I first attended a Chicago Jr. College (now they are called community colleges…) and then got a scholarship to complete my 4 year undergraduate degree. My whole educational career has been split almost in 2 (2 different elementary schools, 2 different high schools, 2 years each in jr college and undergrad, 2 years in one medical school and then transfer to Colorado, 10 years in North Dakota in practice and now 14 years in Mayo). I was fortunate to have good mentoring along the way and consider it a privilege to mentor others. My husband in particular was so supportive of my going back to school after being a homemaker with a small child before applying to medical school. I had been out of school 9 years when I went back to start medical school. It was hard to balance work/life issues, but we kept our focus on the important things in life and didn’t worry about the others. Native American philosophy talks a lot about maintaining “balance” and walking the red road (good road). I had the spiritual base to support me and felt I was called to this work.
How has being from a diverse background helped you succeed in getting your education or profession at Mayo Clinic? Or have you changed any ideas or concepts at Mayo Clinic that has made a difference? At the time when I asked Mayo Cancer Center for help with developing programs for tribes, there wasn’t really much outreach going on with any special populations. Individuals sometimes had projects in foreign countries, but nothing to ethnic or racial minorities here. My inclusion in oncology led to very successful programs which have helped tribes and enhance the image of Mayo. There is more acceptance now of needing to include diverse patients into clinical trials, for example, so that the results can be truly be generalized.
Coming from a diverse background, do you feel that people treat you different at Mayo Clinic or Rochester, MN? I think most people, including patients, are intrigued by Native Americans (eg American Indians and Alaska Natives). They have stereotypes about what an Indian should look like, do, etc. I have tried to dispel some of those myths. When people tell me I “don’t look Indian”, I usually say, “Gee, my family never tells me that!” Since I wear colorful clothing and my Native jewelry, I often get comments about how I dress. Initially, especially because I am female, I felt that I looked “different than the typical male Mayo physician”. I feel very accepted here now and don’t mind being a “woman of color” in dress and ethnicity!
Do you feel that diversity plays a role in the education you are receiving as a professional at Mayo Clinic? Diversity is very important to the goals of Mayo to provide optimal care for all patients. There is a definite commitment of the Cancer Center to enhance our accruals and identify the pharmacogenomics of special populations. The future lies in personalized medicine to make major advances and that needs more patient variety to understand how to choose the right drug for the right patient.
Do you think Mayo Clinic and/or Rochester, MN and/or your program (or program you have created) is diverse? My programs are unique in that most of the work takes place on the community level, not at any of the Mayo campuses. Yes, we do see some Native Americans with complicated needs, but the real work goes on in reservations, tribal and urban clinics. I try to hire as many Natives for our outreach programs as I can. I try to encourage young Native students to consider medical careers, and particularly cancer research and treatment. I think Mayo should continue to be out there advertising that it welcomes more women and minorities. Many people feel Mayo only caters to rich white people. That clearly is not true, but the perception keeps many people away. There also needs to be a core group of diverse leaders in town. Everyone wants to maintain some connection to their culture and if those elements are not available in a town like Rochester, people do not want to live here. Since I joined the staff, the diversity in Rochester has increased significantly.
Final Reflections::: Both outreach to communities and “inreach” of ethnic and racial minority workers and professionals here would enhance the overall character that makes Mayo so special. We can make a difference!
Interview taken by Brittany Alexander and Jessica Silva