Long before the training wheels on her first bicycle were removed, Lee-Anna Huisman had her sights set on the road ahead.
“I wanted to be a doctor from a really young age,” recalls Huisman, who grew up in Terrace, B.C. “My parents tell me that as early as kindergarten, I used to say, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be Dr. Huisman.’”
This May, Huisman will reach the end of her childhood journey, when she crosses the stage to accept her medical degree from UBC.
As one of 293 graduates, she is among the largest graduating class in the history of UBC’s MD undergraduate program.
This year’s ceremony not only marks a record-setting MD student graduation, but an important milestone for the faculty’s Aboriginal MD admissions program.
In 2002, the program set an unofficial goal of graduating 50 more Aboriginal MDs by 2020. Now, the ambitious goal has been reached five years early.
Since its inception, UBC’s Aboriginal admissions program has become a model for other Canadian faculties of medicine. Today, UBC’s MD undergraduate program is training more Aboriginal physicians than ever before, with 35 Aboriginal students currently enrolled in the program, and 17 more offers on their way to new applicants set to start this fall.
“I feel really proud about what we’ve been able to achieve in a little over a decade,” says Aboriginal Student Initiatives Coordinator James Andrew, who has helped to grow the Aboriginal admissions program from its infancy.
For Andrew, reaching the target five years ahead of schedule is a clear testament to the Faculty’s commitment to increasing indigenous representation in the MD program and to helping to create more Aboriginal physicians in B.C.
This year alone, five more Aboriginal students, including Huisman, will wrap up their medical training, and embark on the next stage of their journey as medical residents.
“It’s an upward and encouraging trend,” says Andrew, “In 2001, we could count the number of Aboriginal students who had earned MDs from UBC on two hands.”
The innovative program helps boost enrollment by offering pre-admissions and admissions workshops, counseling support and peer mentoring opportunities to prospective Aboriginal students considering a career in medicine.
“For some students, it’s the first time they’ve heard about UBC’s medical program,” says Andrew, who travels to communities on Vancouver Island, the Interior, and the north, where he meets face-to-face with local high school, college and university students.
UBC alumnus Dr. Toma Timothy, a member of the Silammon First Nation, remembers his first encounter with Andrew well.
“I grew up on a reserve in Powell River and in Grade 10, I ended up coming to Vancouver to take part in UBC’s Summer Science Program — James Andrew was overseeing the program at the time. We toured the campus, walked through the old anatomy lab and listened to a few lectures. It was my first exposure to university. No one in my family had gone to university before — it was all new to me.”
Less than a decade after first setting foot on campus, Timothy was reintroduced to Andrew during a pre-admissions MD workshop and, by 2005, had joined UBC’s Island Medical Program in Victoria,
Today, Timothy is working as a family physician in White Rock and as a clinical instructor with the Faculty of Medicine, where he remains an advocate for Aboriginal health care while helping to train the next generation of physicians.
“There is a real need for more Aboriginal physicians,” says Dr. Timothy, pointing to how a shared cultural understanding — and shared history — can go a long way when delivering care in Aboriginal communities.
“Working in a First Nations community, all of your morning patients might not show up. In my experience, some patients can’t even worry about their medical issues because they have other, more pressing concerns. They may be dealing with addiction issues, familial issues, financial issues, or mental health issues,” says Dr. Timothy.
For Huisman, seeing the work of the Faculty’s outreach program is important on both a professional and personal level.
“When I started looking into the prerequisites to get into medicine, I began thinking back on my own experiences as a patient in Terrace and realizing that I had never met an Aboriginal physician,” says Huisman. “I’ve thought about that more and more as I have gone through medical school, and it has made me want to give back to my community, and to encourage other young Aboriginal people to pursue medicine.”
UBC medical students will graduate on May 20 at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts. The First Nations House of Learning hosts an annual ceremony at the First Nations Longhouse for graduating Aboriginal students, with this year’s event being held on May 23. Families and friends fill the Sty-Wet-Tan Great Hall to witness students being called into the Longhouse through the ceremonial graduation door to have their achievements and new status as graduates honoured and celebrated.