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Press Release

Release Date: January 25, 2022
by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office

First American students receive Blanket of Knowledge during American Indian Medical Student Blessing Ceremony

SAN DIEGO — Two years into her studies at the University of California San Diego’s (UCSD) School of Medicine, student-doctor Brianna Irons’ hard work and dedication to becoming a pediatrician reached a new milestone.

Alongside seven other First American medical students, Irons embraced the honor and recognition of her colleagues, instructors and community during the program’s inaugural American Indian Medical Student Blessing Ceremony and Blanket Presentation Ceremony.

During the event, Dr. Matthew Allison, professor and division chief in the department of family medicine at UCSD, wrapped Irons in a Blanket of Knowledge. Such a gesture celebrates life-changing events.

Being presented the blanket by a fellow Chickasaw, Dr. Allison, made the event a little more special for Irons.

“It was really amazing to see all my First American peers being recognized,” Irons said. “There were Kumeyaay elders who came to bless the ceremony. Having the acknowledgement of our local nations and hearing their bird songs and blessings was really special.”

She said she was both impressed and empowered seeing how many First American medical students joined her that evening. It was something Irons is in a unique position to notice and appreciate.

Many of the professors and students participating in the ceremony helped create a program meant to assist First American medical students and prepare them for careers serving First American populations.

The program, Transforming Indigenous Doctor Education (TIDE), is funded by a broader program in California called Programs in Medical Education (PRIME).

“Having the deans, faculty and mentors there acknowledging all the work that has gone into creating this new program and to hear them speak about its projected impact – it was a really awesome night,” Irons said.

Addressing the need with TIDE

“Plain and simple, we need more First American health care professionals at all levels. Fifty-six percent of medical schools in the U.S. did not report a single enrolled First American medical student. It’s pretty alarming to hear,” Irons said. “But, there is a lot of work being done, such as creating spaces for Indigenous medical students and pipeline efforts to address that disparity.”

Irons wants to help address health inequities in First American communities. She pointed to issues of funding, staffing and representation, and the importance of trust.

“The biggest thing is patient trust and having a doctor committed to living where you are, serving your people,” she said. “I think you’re more willing to trust that person. They might better understand your traditions, your family or maybe trauma you have experienced. I think that is indescribable, that immediate sense of comfort you feel with someone. When you’re talking about wellness, I think that’s really important.”

It is with this mindset that Irons joined the health care instructors and students working together to lift UCSD’s new TIDE program off the ground.

As director of the TIDE program, Dr. Allison took the lead. He said he included students like Irons in its development, turning to them for insight and assistance.

For example, Irons has interviewed prospective students, individuals already accepted into UCSD’s School of Medicine who are interested in serving First American populations. When the group brainstormed to find the program’s name, Irons was there to help.

“What stood out with Brianna is she was always willing to contribute,” Dr. Allison said. “I’ve gone around to different local First American clinics to develop more resources for our students to have during their training. She accompanied me. She wanted to see the facilities for herself, talk to the leadership at the facilities and see what they had to say. She’s really engaged that way.”

Irons has lived it, which places her in a unique position to help develop a program that will train new First American medical students.

“It’s so important to see them pursuing health careers, returning to a space where they can serve First American families. To encourage Indigenous youth, I want to show any First American person can do this,” Irons said.

She will be the first doctor in her family. She said both of her parents went to college and fully supported her academic endeavors, but when it came to navigating the world of medical school, it was all very foreign. Being a second-year student, the TIDE program was not available to her when entering medical school at UCSD.

“It was hard to navigate on my own. That’s why I’m really passionate about pipeline projects for students, programs to help them feel supported and show them the inner workings of how to get into medical school,” she said.

A bit about Brianna

Irons grew up outside of Philadelphia with two siblings. Her Chickasaw heritage comes from her mother and stretches back to a bull riding great-grandfather from Oklahoma. They are all descendants of Hagen Iehokatubby.

Though she grew up disconnected from Chickasaw land, her pride in being Chickasaw was bolstered by her okra-loving grandfather, Colbert Grantham. He and his twin sister, Carolyn Wright, were reared in Oklahoma, where much of the family still resides.

Grantham supported her all along the path to medical school. Though he now lives with Alzheimer’s disease, he attended her white coat ceremony. Every time they meet, he tells her, “The Chickasaws need doctors.”

“Without fail, any time I see him, he is always telling me the Chickasaw people need more doctors. He is always asking about my career, my aspirations. I’ve always felt very supported by him in whatever phase of life I’ve been,” Irons said.

She was always interested in science and math, but it was not until her undergraduate studies at Brown University learning about public health that she decided to become a pediatrician.

“I found that medicine was really a way to align my values in a career – the ability to be committed to community, service and equity – it all came together in medicine for me,” she said.

Irons is value-driven, and the source of her values is her spirituality.

“Spirituality is the bedrock. It has given me those values and allowed me to have grace for other people. Faith also has given me a sense of community, working for something bigger,” she said.

She believes everyone deserves to be cared for. It is a “we” mindset.

“We are born into something that’s different as Chickasaws. Being Chickasaw is about communal strength, family and so much more. It’s a blessing even if there are some adversities you experience,” she said.