How to Be Someone in Medicine

garon_coriz_wht By Garon Coriz, MD

Like a playful spirit, the sun seemed to stop its descent just beyond the flat-topped mesas to the west and paint the cerulean blues of the sky a soft orange and spatter the high-flying cirrus a brilliant pink. My young feet kicked up the fine dirt of a makeshift basketball court at a relative’s home that stood alone across the broad arroyo from the rest of my village. The scorching heat of the sun finally relinquished its grip on the parched land and gave me pause. I gazed across the valley over the cottonwoods of the bosque that follows the Rio Grande south to the Gulf of Mexico. I knew I didn’t have long until my mom would make her way over to pick me up after a 40-minute commute from Albuquerque. I have yet to figure out when, why, or how, but that moment over 22 years ago planted a seed of purpose within me. I recall nodding in agreement when I said “I would be someone.”

At the time, my family’s love would trump the frustrations of being only half native. Some of the children would tease incessantly, labeling me white buffalo. My protective cousins would fend them off. When alone, my brother’s reputation as a star basketball player kept me somewhat safe, but still, frequent fights defending myself required schooling elsewhere than the local tribal school.

The transition from a full household with mom, aunts, grandma, and cousins to being the only child living with my father was challenging. The horde of children in my immediate neighborhood changed to a mere toddler or two a block away. Instead of open dirt streets, alley ways, and expansive fields beyond the corrals, I had an asphalt grid full of fenced off houses in central Albuquerque.

My first years of school in the city were met with its own hurdles. My hyperactivity lead to hyper-vigilance amongst my teachers with frequent punishment. When kids fabricated tales to get me in trouble, my word was tossed aside. As explained to my father, “why should we take your son’s word over these nice little white girls?” Luckily, I had a brilliant caucasian attorney for a father, and eventually, an honest classmate would clear me. I’d wonder what would’ve happened if I didn’t have a highly educated white parent who would bat for me. What if I was full-blooded native? I decided I didn’t envy the disadvantage of my full-blooded peers.

Not yet in high school, I had already become aware of a much larger world, with gears that turned without concern for me. The years following were just as peppered with such events. I won’t go into depth about getting called “dirty Mexican” by fans heckling me during college basketball games, or told I only got into medical school because of affirmative action. Prejudice and ignorance can take on a plethora of different forms from odd to cliche, but I hold no grudges against any race. As the great poet, Sherman Alexie, put it; “I used to think the world was broken down by tribes…black and white. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are a—– and the people who are not.”

With the knowledge gained from many years of schooling, and wisdom earned navigating the tough, narrow line between the “native world” and the “white world,” I seek ways to help my people. My Pueblo elders would often say: “Don’t forget about us; your people. You’re a part of us. Don’t forget.” I remember vividly, but I hold them dear not just because I share their blood, but because I find them to be good people. My father, who has worked with natives in the southwest for nearly 40 years, still finds it amazing that in general, despite the grotesque history of maltreatment and current state of incredible poverty, natives are still some of the most kind and generous people he knows.

Currently, finding a balance between my tribal culture and the dominating world culture continues to be a bear I must wrestle daily. In residency, it only became tougher, and the bond to home and people weakened. That is why I have been so grateful for the Native American Research Internship. Pre-med native students come to the University of Utah in the summer and get a chance to work alongside specialists in medicine, doing research and gaining clinical experience. This year, with the enthusiastic blessing of the residency, several of these pleasant students shadowed me in clinic. The reconnection to a long road now being traveled by these younger native students brings it all home. Whether I return home and work in my tribe’s clinic, remain in Utah, or wander between Indian Health Service clinics across the country, medicine is where I should be. This is where I can be someone.

Garon Coriz, MD is a third year Family Medicine Resident at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

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