TUBA CITY, Ariz. - Two Navajo surgeons from Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation (TCRHCC) were invited to speak to a class of seventh graders at the Tuba City Boarding School (TCBS) on Feb. 18. Dr. Vanessa Jensen and Dr. Joachim Chino spoke to the students.
"It started right here, where you guys are, right in this small town," said Dr. Jensen, a Navajo from Grey Mountain.
Dr. Jensen is a surgeon at TCRHCC. There is no special school to become a doctor she said. She is no stranger to the Tuba City school districts. She started kindergarten at the Tuba City Primary School and is a graduate of Tuba City High School.
Dr. Jensen talked about her humble beginnings at her grandparents' home in Grey Mountain. She talked about her father and paternal grandparents' influences, and the hard work of cow branding and sheep shearing with the family. Like any child, Dr. Jensen tried to get out of the hard work her family expected of her. One day, her father said, "Are you going to help brand or are you going to study?" Work on her grandparent's ranch was hard, so she chose to study.
In high school, Dr. Jensen had plenty of fun with school sports and extra curricular activities. But school was always a priority for her. It was in high school she had to decide, and she asked herself, "Do I want to work at a fast food restaurant for the rest of my life or what am I going to do for a living?"
She decided college was the right thing. "I really didn't know anything about college," Dr. Jensen said.
She remembered stories her dad talked about, but there was no college fund for her to go to school with. "We had no money, we were poor," she said.
This did not stop her. She decided to go to Northern Arizona University (NAU). It was close enough to travel home and visit with family.
At NAU, Dr. Jensen applied for many scholarships to help her financially with school. She even applied for a scholarship for left-handed students. "I didn't get it because I was right-handed," she said, followed by a laugh with the students.
Dr. Jensen later transferred to the University of Arizona (UA) where she completed a bachelor's degree in biology. After graduating from UA, she was unsure whether she wanted to become a doctor. She applied for medical school and soon learned a life skill that helped her become a doctor. This life skill was called "delayed gratification." She explained to the students, "It means you put off all your fun until you finish your goal."
During medical school, Dr. Jensen experienced many challenges as a Navajo wanting to become a doctor. Her traditional upbringing led her to see a traditional medicine man to seek sanction and ceremonies to become a doctor. She learned to practice traditional healing to help her stay in balance and in harmony through the Navajo Way of Life.
With her goal set of becoming a surgeon in medical school, she knew it was a big role and it was a great big deal. For Dr. Jensen, it was hard to believe she was making it happen for herself.
"Everyday we question ourselves in the roles we choose to take in our lives, whether you are a principal, a waitress, or a doctor. But you have to have that confidence in yourself," she said to the students. "You all have an early head start to get on the right path."
Her advice to the students: "Enjoy your life, plan it out, keep your priorities straight, and remember who is important to you." She added, "Maintain your balance, health, and learn to organize your life and time."
Dr. Jensen's final message to the students: "Hold your head up and speak your voice." She said, "I was the little, quiet girl in the back of the room and I never spoke. I never raised my hand because I was shy."
"But now," she said, "when I need a tool or instrument in the operating room, I have to speak up because people's lives are on the line."
Making a commitment
Dr. Chino, TCRHCC Chief of Surgery, is half Navajo and half Acoma from Chinle. He grew up in the area and is an alumnus of Chinle High School. Dr. Chino recalls how he roamed the hills in Chinle and played outside as a child.
"Becoming Chief of Surgery is a long-term commitment," said Dr. Chino. "You have to put yourself in a position where you can make that commitment." Staying away from drugs and alcohol, studying hard in school, and listening to our parents and teachers were examples he used to be successful in life. "It's important for you at this stage," he said.
Chino talked to the students about steps he took to becoming a surgeon. He explained he was an average student throughout his high school and college education. He said, "To become a surgeon, it takes years of education and it's a long-term commitment. In the end, it's worth it."
"As a surgeon," Dr. Chino said, "The people you interact with, and the ability to affect them and help them out is great."
Talking and helping people is important, but he explained his job also requires working with his hands, with instruments and tools in the operating room. He compared using his hands like a carpenter and those who build models.
"Each profession requires using the hands to be detailed and meticulous to our work," said Dr. Chino. "The only difference is, I work on people."
"It takes years to learn to utilize these tools, to use them properly, and when to use them," said Dr. Chino as he showed the class the instruments he uses in the operating room.
"But this is something that all you guys can eventually hope to do," he said.
Similar to Dr. Jensen's experience, Dr. Chino said, "I didn't grow up rich and I didn't go to some fancy school." It was hard work in school and finishing school led him to where he is now.
It was also the teachers that saw the potential in Dr. Chino. There were times in school he didn't do so well, but it was his teachers' and parents' words of encouragement, Dr. Chino said. "People saw how much potential I had, and said, you can do this."
He added, "If I can do it, any one of you guys can do it."