Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘Ready to be home’: Kirtland Central alumna earns medical degree to serve Northern Navajo

‘Ready to be home’: Kirtland Central alumna earns medical degree to serve Northern Navajo

DÁ’DEESTŁ’IN HÓTSAA – When Olivia Harris was young, Dr. Wilbur A. Tso inspired her to become a family medicine doctor.

Tso, a family medicine doctor in Tóta’, was Harris’ physician, a Diné who looked, talked, and even made jokes like her.

“He just made me feel really comfortable, and I knew that was something I wanted to do for my community – to be that person,” said Harris, who recently graduated from the University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“When you have a health problem, you’re pretty vulnerable,” she said. “You don’t know what to do. So, I really wanted to be that presence in my community for our (Diné) like that. I was kind of always fascinated with the doctor role.”

Harris says she was captivated by the hospital staff as a child whenever she went to the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Toohdi. “And that always kind of stuck in the back of my mind,” she said.

Harris is the daughter of Charleson and Geraldine Harris of Upper Fruitland, New Mexico. She is ‘Áshįįhí and born for Naakaii Dine’é. Her maternal grandfather is Bit’ahnii, and her paternal grandfather is Tódích’íi’nii.

Coming home

Dr. Olivia Harris, whose medical journey began after “a few” inspirations during her childhood years, said the road to becoming a physician was filled with different phases of training.

“My maternal grandparents have always worked with the tribe,” Harris explained. “Their example led me to do something for my community. I didn’t know in what way. That was kind of always in the back of my mind.”

After graduating from Kirtland Central High in 2010, Harris enrolled at Northern Arizona University to earn a degree in exercise science, which is similar to a biomedical science or pre-medical program.

“I had a plan initially to go into physical therapy once I graduated,” Harris said. “Because I didn’t know anyone else who was a doctor, I felt pretty unprepared (for medical school). I had no idea what to do.”

It wasn’t until she became part of NAU’s Native American Cancer Prevention program that set her up with a research mentor. During her senior year, she did research with associate professor Dirk de Heer, who told her one day, “You can go to medical school.”

“I kind of didn’t really believe in myself at that point,” Harris said. “Hearing him say that was kind of that push I needed: ‘All right, I’m gonna commit to this. I’m gonna do this.’ He knew the right people to get me in contact with. And I really appreciated that help there.”

After graduating from NAU, Harris decided to do a one-year research internship with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Phoenix.

“Once I finished that, I still didn’t feel ready to apply to medical school yet,” she said. “I had worked in a cardiology office for a few months and got to see that aspect of how interns work. Then, I got a job as a medical scribe for an ear, nose, and throat doctor. That kind of solidified what I wanted to do in medicine.”

That’s when Harris knew she enjoyed working in the medical field.

“I just loved it,” she added. “It really clicked with me, and I felt pretty inspired, and after working with (the ENT doctor), I worked as a scribe again for a psychiatrist. Working in mental health is a little different.”

Medical school, being away from home

Olivia Harris was ready for medical school one day.

“I think I can do this,” she told herself. “I know what the job entails. I applied to UND (School of Medicine and Health Sciences). They’ve a wonderful program called the ‘INMED’ program. I got accepted and started.”
Harris learned that medical school is full of ups and downs and details, and it can become easy to get caught up in minute-by-minute tasks.

“But ultimately prevailed, and now I’m going into family medicine,” she said. “I want to work in my community: the Shiprock, Waterflow, Fruitland, and Kirtland area––serve my community there. That’s kind of my journey into medicine.”

Harris has been away from Diné Bikéyah for over 10 years. Dealing with homesickness and being outside of her comfort zone, where she didn’t know anyone, were the toughest parts of her journey.

She’s close to returning home. After her initial year of residency at the University of New Mexico Hospital, Harris will return to Northern Navajo to complete the final two years of her residency.

“I’m at the tail end,” Harris said. “I’m just glad to be home. I’ve been away since graduating high school. I missed out on a lot of family gatherings.

“It really was a sacrifice to be away from my mom and dad and my community,” she said. “But I knew I needed to leave to get training, skills and to be a better person. So, now, I’m just ready to be home.”

Harris added that when the coronavirus entered the U.S., her school went online and on Zoom.

“That was another wrench in my schooling,” she said. “It was a little nerve-racking for me. I couldn’t go home to be with my family. What made it worse was my parents had essential jobs. They were constantly working during the pandemic.”

Worried about her parents, she became anxious seeing the number of COVID-19 cases in the Navajo Nation.

“It was tough to think about and tough to focus on your studies when you know what’s going on back home,” she said. “I had to trust the process, trust what I was doing … and get it done.”

She credits her parents, her husband, who is also in medicine, and her INMED group and its Native American cultural gatherings with helping her get through school.

“That was really comforting for me: we’re all in this together,” she thought. “There was seven of us in this graduating class. We met as much as we could. Having that camaraderie really helped. They understood where we were coming from, being away from home. It was that community in North Dakota that helped me tremendously.”


About The Author

Krista Allen

Krista Allen is editor of the Navajo Times.

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