(Friendly) Family Rivalry
Leesha and Erik Heitkamp turn a good-natured competitiveness into better health for North Dakota.
It’s only a friendly rivalry.
“I majored in zoology and only minored in chemistry and psychology, so Leesha one-upped me there,” explains Erik Heitkamp of his spouse. “She double-majored in zoology and psychology, with a chem minor. So, yeah, there’s a little bit of competitiveness between us.”
“But it’s a healthy competitiveness,” interjects Leesha Heitkamp. “We push each other.”
And North Dakota is better off for it.
Having met at an American Medical Student Association (AMSA) meeting at NDSU as undergraduates, Leesha and Erik initially felt less romance than a friendly—at times tongue-in-cheek—competition with each other, says Leesha.
But as the academic years progressed, so did their relationship.
“I was president [of AMSA] and she was the activities coordinator, so we had to work together,” remembers Erik, who claims Lisbon, N.D., as home. “I thought she was cute—but she thought I was annoying. Over time, though, we developed a really good friendship and, obviously, more.”
Graduating from NDSU together, the pair stayed together and applied to the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS), they explained over the phone from Fargo. Erik got in, while Leesha, who is originally from Bismarck, N.D., was waitlisted.
Blessing in disguise
The scenario turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as the two quickly realized how difficult it may have been on their relationship to be in med school simultaneously.
“We feel quite fortunate, actually, that it worked out the way it did,” says Leesha today, who instead took the wait-listing to hone her clinical skills in various settings before reapplying to UND. “The time away from school was good. These in-between years for us have been a phenomenal journey—I gained work experience, and we obviously got married and had a baby.”
So it is that after a brief hiatus the “competition” continues this fall. With Erik’s internal medicine residency winding down— he’s already signed with a local hospital system in the area— it’s Leesha’s turn to go back to school. In August, she became a first-year medical student at the SMHS.
“I am so excited to be starting medical school,” Leesha beams. “This has been a dream of mine, and really a dream of ours, for many years. I am thrilled to be returning to school to further educate myself, achieve my goals, give back, and become a different type of role model for our son and community.”
That said, she admits to a mix of emotions as she sends the couple’s two-year-old son off to daycare.
“We’re a little bit nervous, but we’re excited,” continues Leesha. “There’s a part of me that is worried he will not remember all the time we spent together given that my new schedule will require more time away from home. But he’s ready to make some new friends.”
It is this sort of anxiety that Erik says Leesha helped him through when he was in med school—and he hopes to reciprocate.
“UND does a good job of letting people in families know what it means and how they might be feeling emotionally,” explains Erik, who took his MD from the SMHS in 2017 and knew early on that internal medicine was the place for him. “So, at times when you’re just stressed and frustrated with studying and tests, there’s someone there to encourage you. That was my wife.”
Improving the system
That support and engagement is critical too, says Erik, in so far as it can help ward off the burnout to which providers of all backgrounds are susceptible in the current health system.
“In the health care system in general, people who accept these roles to take care of others can sometimes lose their passion for patient care,” Erik explains. “You get bombarded by numerous regulatory and political issues that can be hard for anyone—docs, nurses, physical therapists—to navigate. It is a terrible pain and can truly hamper your ability to take care of some patients.”
Later, describing the challenge of caring for patients either without insurance or whose plan doesn’t cover certain medications, Erik explains how the prescription they were recently given for a portable epinephrine auto-injector for their son’s egg allergy was complicated by the cost of a product their provider said was necessary having been marked up nearly 300 percent by the manufacturer.
“Six-hundred dollars,” said Erik. “That’s expensive for any person and that might be a life or death thing for my kid. What do you do— not pay for the medication since it might not get reimbursed?”
For these reasons, among others, both Heitkamps remain interested in working to improve not only the health system generally, in so far as they are able, and patient care in North Dakota specifically.
“I’ve been on a lot of committees trying to improve the education process,” says Erik. “And I’m open to looking for ways to improve our residency program and make changes to the [medical] curriculum. Giving back to the school is important and I’d love to be involved in med student education. So—we want to give back to the state that has given so much to us, which is why we wanted to stay here.”
Leesha too has a background in volunteerism and service learning and hopes to continue her volunteer efforts while in school.
“Our desire to be involved in our communities is an aspect I do not foresee changing, and one we hope to instill in our children,” Leesha concludes, stoking the rivalry with a smile. “With my medical career I hope to have an impact on women in medicine. [But] I am interested in medical education as a whole, how it’s developed, the admissions process, and how it can evolve to best prepare medical students to practice and accommodate the needs of our ever-changing communities.”
Let’s hope this even friendlier rivalry continues for a very long time.