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Two Female American Indian Surgeons Speak at White Coat Ceremony

Two female, American Indian surgeons spoke at the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine’s second white coat ceremony. At the event, held August 12 at the Las Cruces Convention Center, the 162 members of BCOM’s incoming class of 2021 received their traditional white coats and were officially welcomed into the medical profession.

Last year, the keynote speaker for the event was Antonia Novello, MD, the 14th Surgeon General of the United States and the first woman and the first Hispanic to hold the position. The 2017 keynote speaker was similarly in line with BCOM’s mission to diversify the physician workforce and improve healthcare for the diverse populations in the Southwest.

Lori Arviso Alvord, MD, a New Mexico native, is the first female Navajo to be board-certified as a surgeon. Dr. Alvord was born in Crownpoint, about 55 miles east of Gallup. She graduated from Dartmouth College and earned her MD at Stanford University Medical School. She completed a six-year residency at Stanford University Hospital and earned her board certification as a surgeon in 1994.

Lori Arviso Alvord, MD

During her career, she has practiced as a surgeon with Indian Health Services, served as an associate dean at Dartmouth Medical School, and served as an associate faculty member at John Hopkins School of Public Health. She was a 2013 nominee for U.S. Surgeon General and is the author of the book, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing.

Dr. Alvord’s accomplishments are even more impressive given the low number of American Indians—and particularly females—in the physician workforce. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), only 682 American Indian or Alaskan Native women graduated from medical school between 2000 and 2010. Another 2013 AAMC report notes that of the roughly 320,000 practicing female physicians in the United States, less than one percent (.5%) identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native. Even fewer are board-certified as surgeons.

“If I can do it, you damn sure can do it,” Dr. Alvord told the new medical students, before explaining the hardships she overcame to reach her goals including an alcoholic father and a C and D on her undergraduate transcript. She also reminded the future physicians about the importance of focusing on the patient as a whole person–body, mind, and spirit–and told them, “Your minds are bright and, your futures even brighter.”

Dr. Alvord is actually one of two female, American Indian surgeons to speak at the White Coat Ceremony. BCOM Chair of Surgery Adela Lente, MD, read the Osteopathic Oath in Tiwa, one of five languages spoken by the Pueblo people of New Mexico. The Osteopathic Oath was also read in the Navajo language, Diné, and in Spanish. The students recited the oath in English.

Adela Lente, MD

Dr. Lente is a member of Isleta Pueblo. She earned her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of New Mexico, and in 2002, graduated from the UNM School of Medicine. She completed her surgical residency at the University of Arizona in Tucson, after which she practiced in Tuba City, Arizona on the Navajo reservation. Dr. Lente is a general surgeon currently practicing emergency general surgery and trauma in El Paso.

Other special guests at the ceremony included Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, and Marcos Bucio, consul general of Mexico in El Paso.

Justin McHorse, BCOM’s chief of staff and associate dean for multicultural inclusion said, “Dr. Alvord’s achievements and book have played a significant role in broadening the pathway for Native women and men who needed a role model to identify with in their efforts to navigate and overcome the many obstacles and barriers to become a physician. It was a tremendous honor to have two esteemed Native women surgeons speak at the white coat ceremony. ”