Home-grown health experts

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants to increase the number of Cherokee medical experts to address urgent community health issues in culturally respectful ways.

Wake Forest is responding to this need for more health workers with a summer program to help Cherokee youth explore health careers.

Ulrike Wiethaus, professor of religion and American ethnic studies, and a team of Wake Forest colleagues were recently awarded a $170,000 grant from the Burroughs-Wellcome Foundation to fund the Medical Careers and Technology Academy (MEDCAT) program on the Wake Forest campus for the next three years.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have identified the need to ‘grow’ their own medical experts for the tribe,” said Wiethaus, who has worked on numerous projects with American Indian community partners.

The goal of MEDCAT, originally developed in 2007, is to introduce North Carolina’s Cherokee students to diverse careers in medicine and technology with an emphasis on integrating culture and history.

“The program tries to bring together medical careers and a culture with a thousands-of-years old tradition of healing,” said Wiethaus. She secured the grant with Ronny Bell, professor of epidemiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and Director of the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity; Margaret Bender, chair of Wake Forest’s anthropology department; and Adrienne Loffredo, program manager of the Center for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Learning.

“I see this as a great opportunity to open doors for Eastern Band Cherokee youth who are interested in pursuing medical careers and to help diversify the healthcare work force,” said Bell, who is a member of the Lumbee Nation.  “If this is successful, we can open it up to other North Carolina Indian populations across the state.”

This year, the program will bring 25 Western North Carolina high school students and five Western North Carolina high school teachers to the Wake Forest campus for a week during the summer to provide students with a science enrichment experience, using a problem-based learning methodology and focused on career opportunities in health care and biotechnology.

Non-Cherokee students and teachers from western North Carolina will also be eligible to attend.

The program will also give teachers instructional materials and training that parallels the student activities, so they can use the problem-based learning methodology in their schools when they get back home.

In a previous year, students in the MEDCAT program were presented with a problem-based learning scenario that put them in the role of a 911 emergency dispatcher making decisions about whether to send an ambulance or a helicopter to an accident scene.  The exercise was combined with a visit to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center’s AirCare and emergency transport areas to meet the health care professionals in that area.

The 2011 program will include similar activities as well as sessions on health and medical career choices.  Students from Wake Forest School of Medicine will help with the program.

The MEDCAT program is part of a broader initiative called the Culturally-Based Native Health Program, a partnership between the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Western Carolina University, Wake Forest and other universities.   In November, Wake Forest renewed its commitment to the initiative through 2015.

Wiethaus has coordinated several culturally-based college career seminars with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, including one in 2010 to help students explore careers in law.

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