Native traditions, sacrifice shape Marisa Pinto’s career path in medicine
September 17, 2018
RENO, Nev. — While observing others, Marisa Pinto made the decision to become a physician.
For 16 years at Renown Health as a clinic lab scientist and its blood blank manager, Pinto's profession was a supporting role in healthcare.
However, a 6-month project that paired her with physicians from various fields of medicine changed everything. She saw firsthand how these doctors interacted with their patients and made up her mind to enroll in medical school.
"I knew that is what I wanted to do," Pinto said. "As a technician, we are in the background. Patients don't see us at all because we are running lab specimens, and I wanted to work directly with people."
So, at 41 years of age, Pinto recently moved away from her entire family, including her husband and two children, and tackled the hardest thing she's ever done.
"I struggled quite a bit," Pinto said. "Medical school was different than anything I have ever done."
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Taking it 'one day at a time'
Growing up with her first language as Zuni, Pinto was a product of public education on the reservation.
Even though she was very grounded in academics and secured a bachelor's of science from the University of Arizona and a master's in business at the University of Nevada, Reno the medical school demands were unimaginable.
"I've been to college and enjoyed a very science-based education," Pinto said. "It was not that the subject matter or the curriculum was too hard, but I struggled because I had to find out how I best studied."
Plus, the city Pinto chose to build her second career — Grand Forks, N.D. — didn't offer much in the way of comforts either. It's a 24-hour drive by car from Reno, and the average winter temperature is 13 degrees.
So as it had been for her entire existence, Pinto's success in medical school has been contingent on all the loved ones in her life — her husband, her parents, her brother, her two children, and her grandson.
According to Pinto, if it wasn't for her family — mostly Zuni and Paiute — she wouldn't have made it through her first year of medical school, and the notion of two more rigorous years to finish her doctorate, along with another three grueling years of residency, is extremely daunting.
"I take it one day at a time," Pinto said more than once, "but I feel strongly that is my path."
A long and winding path
Her path to medical school not only required a U-turn back to UNR where she had been a master's student 16 years prior, but where to attend medical school weighed on her entire family, too.
Starting off, Pinto completed prerequisite courses at UNR, before applying to medical school. She took several visits to universities in the west and southwest prioritizing those in proximity to her family.
However, the University of North Dakota, more than 1,600 miles away from the Colony, offered something different.
UND is very-Native friendly. It offers a comprehensive education program assisting American Indian students who are preparing for health careers called Indians Into Medicine (INMED).
Established in 1973 to address the need for health professionals to serve reservation populations, INMED student support services include academic and personal counseling, assistance with financial aid applications, and summer enrichment sessions.
Every year, INMED allocates at least seven spots in its medical school class to Native Americans. Pinto said everyone in her family agreed that INMED was the best fit for her.
"It's different for those of us who grew up more traditionally like I did in Zuni," Pinto said. "I moved up (to North Dakota) on my own because my family thought that it was best for me not to have any distractions."
'Indian Nation is hurting for family physicians'
Because Pinto spent half her childhood in her father's ancestral land — Zuni, N.M., a Pueblo-style, rural community — and the other half in her Paiute mother's ancestral land — the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, a nation of three distinct tribes in an urban setting — her Native American cultural experience is two-fold.
"I always feel like I'm from two places," Pinto said. "In Zuni, the language is very culturally rich, very traditional, and we are very far away from any urban life, whereas with the (RSIC), we are right in the city."
However, despite the differences, the health disparities in both communities are strikingly similar, and thanks to one of those special summer seasons set up by INMED, Pinto has studied the RSIC's diabetes epidemic up close.
"Indian Nation is hurting for family physicians," Pinto said. "Those of us who are American Indian can relate more to Indian Nation, and especially those of us who were raised on reservations because we know the culture, the values and the lifestyle."
For six weeks this summer, Pinto served as an Indian Health Service intern as she shadowed Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center medical professionals.
With input from the RSTHC medical director, Dr. Geniel Harrison, Pinto shadowed and consulted with RSTHC doctors, dieticians and nurse practitioners. Her biggest takeaway from her time at the health center was the same as her Zuni and Paiute traditions emphasize; in healthcare, it takes teamwork for positive outcomes.
"The doctor can prescribe all kinds of medication, tell you what to do, refer you to the dietician, refer you to the 3Nations Wellness Center for activity, and doctors can monitor your sugars, but if you are not doing your part, it is not going to help," Pinto said. "You have to help yourself as a patient."
Pinto said she looks forward to sharing her summer experience with her fellow INMED Native American students back in North Dakota.
"It has been such a great opportunity and such a great feeling for me," Pinto said. "When I was a teenager, I used the (Colony) clinic and Dr. (Gil) Mabunda was my doctor, and now, here I am, shadowing my own doctor."
Such feelings — familiarity, a sense of purpose and a lot of confidence in her path — inspire Pinto.
"I have made so many sacrifices to move away from home and to go back to school at the age of 41," Pinto said. "I'm the oldest medical student in my class of '79, and I want to make every part of my journey worthwhile."
This article first published in the RSIC's monthly newsletter, The Camp News, in its July 2018 edition, and is republished by First Nation's Focus with permission. Due to space limitations, the article has been edited. Visit http://www.rsic.org/rsic-newsletter to read the full story.