A celebration at UW Memorial Union’s Great Hall brought together the DFMCH community for an evening filled with inspiration and fellowship.
The annual McGovern-Tracy and Student Scholars reception offered an opportunity to celebrate students, faculty and staff who exemplified the values of leadership and community service modeled by the event’s namesakes, Michele Tracy and Elizabeth McGovern Kerr. Tracy was a UW medical student tragically killed in an accident while serving a medical mission in Malawi, and McGovern Kerr was from a family of physicians who were some of the first to serve urban and rural families in Wisconsin.
This year’s keynote speaker led a life of community service. Dr. Bret Benally Thompson, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, spent his early career in law enforcement, as an Army infantry officer, and as an EMT before starting medical school at the age of 40.
In her introduction, Dr. Jennifer Edgoose shared that Benally Thompson was Alaska’s first hospice and palliative medicine fellow. He joined UW in 2011 as a DFMCH hospitalist and immediately became involved in the community as one of the founding members of the Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP). He also served as a valued member of the DFMCH’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee from 2017-2020. Benally Thompson, an associate clinical professor in the Division of Hematology, Medical Oncology, and Palliative Care, is currently the primary investigator for more than $3 million in programmatic, strategic and community grants including an Indian Health Service (IHS) Indians in Medicine Grant, and a Community Impact Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program with the Oneida Nation to promote food sovereignty.
Indigenous Health: History and Future
Before beginning his talk, “Indigenous Health: History and Future,” Benally Thompson shared the unique connection he has with Michele Tracy through Dr. Tom Nighswander, his preceptor and mentor in Alaska. Nighswander served in the Peace Corp in Malawi and returns each year to help in the Malawi Children’s Village. Tracy and her group helped construct one of the buildings in the village where there is a plaque displayed in her honor. According to Benally Thompson, Nighswander and Tracy are strong examples of people who spent their lives in service to others.
Benally Thompson has devoted his life to serving Native American communities in the US. While there are 574 federally recognized tribes within the borders of the US, 11 of those in Wisconsin, access to quality health care is poor and non-existent for tribes who are not federally recognized due to government policies that seized land and removed people from their homes, shared Benally Thompson. Tribes that are sovereign nations receive health care through the Indian Health Service, but the service is severely understaffed—a factor that contributes to the lowest life expectancy rate in the US.
Through his work with NACHP, Benally Thompson is hoping to improve health care for all Native Americans by enhancing recruitment of Native people to UW health professional schools and programs; improving the Native health professional student experience; establishing and enhancing Native health education opportunities; recruiting, retaining, and developing Native faculty; and growing Native health academic programs with tribal communities. Though there is a long way to go, some of these early efforts are paying off. The number of Native American students in medical school at UW has grown from five in 2012 to 33 in 2023. The progress is promising but Benally Thompson warned that it is not enough to fill the 30-40 position vacancy rate at the Indian Health Service.
In closing, he urged attendees and award recipients to put communities first.
“There are many ways to serve, but community service might be the highest form, so we need you out improving the health of our communities as well as the individuals,” concluded Benally Thompson.
Watch Reception Video: https://youtu.be/nfPlsCde4L4
Meet the Recipients
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Published: May 2023