Second-year med student Emily Falcon follows her father Gilbert into medicine at UND and the University’s Indians Into Medicine Program.
Sometimes it’s as simple as liking your teachers.
“I was interested in what the teachers I had growing up had to say about science,” said Dr. Gilbert Falcon over the phone from Belcourt, N.D. “And since science was more interesting to me, I did better [in those classes]. I suppose that led to medicine.”
A Belcourt native and 2009 graduate of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) MD program, Gilbert, who was also part of the School’s Indians Into Medicine (INMED) Program, was pleased that practicing in Belcourt was an option for him when he finished his family medicine residency in Minot, N.D.
“I wanted to practice in a rural setting,” he continued. “I like small towns, and the Midwest was where I wanted to be. The opportunity to go home was available, so I took it. Not a lot of people get to go home because it’s not always easy to practice medicine among so many people you know. The social dynamic of it can be hard on them. But for me it’s worked out.”
And while it might not have been his express intent, Gilbert’s decision to stay in North Dakota more than a decade ago has resulted in another Falcon gracing the halls of the various buildings on the UND campus—including the SMHS—today.
In 2018, Gilbert’s eldest daughter Emily became the second Falcon to enter not only the School’s MD program, but INMED.
“During my sophomore year of high school, I participated in the INMED Summer Institute at UND, which allowed me to become more acquainted with UND and its campus,” said Emily, who admits that in high school she was more interested in interior design and architecture than medicine, and originally wanted to go to college outside North Dakota. “However, I realized that I wanted to be close enough to be able to watch my younger sisters—now ages 9 and 10—grow up. Then, after the exposure from the INMED summer program, I knew that I wanted to go to UND for college.”
It perhaps goes without saying that hearing such words is a comfort to Gilbert—who insists he didn’t pressure Emily either to pursue medicine or attend UND, but is nonetheless glad she did.
Emily Falcon and her father Gilbert at Quentin N. Burdick Memorial Hospital in Belcourt, N.D.
“She’s attached to [Belcourt],” added Gilbert of his daughter. “The community—she loves it. Being part of a community makes it easier to come back, which also makes it easier for recruiting docs. If you have a link to a town, whether a reservation town or any small town in North Dakota, a provider is more likely to come back.”
Recruitment and retention of physicians is, after all, an ongoing concern in North Dakota, especially for those on the state’s five American Indian reservations. According to data from the Health Resources & Services Administration, eight of the top 10 counties expressing the greatest need for providers in North Dakota are those with reservations, including Belcourt’s Rolette County.
“Right now, we’re under the gun because we have a lot of older providers retiring—and we had one pass away recently,” Gilbert sighed. “We have a lot of people who have been here for decades and will eventually need to replace them. That’s definitely a challenge, but I think INMED is helping with that.”
Emily Falcon is a case-in-point.
Admitting that INMED was perhaps the biggest factor in convincing her to attend UND for her undergraduate and medical education, Emily said that the support system that INMED offers has been invaluable.
“The INMED group in our class is very close,” she explained. “Many of the INMED students come from far away, and it is very hard being away from family. But we have found our own family with each other. I am so grateful for this opportunity to be able to learn with other Native students who have a similar goal: to help advance our populations.”
For what it’s worth, Emily added, another big part of her retention was 25-year INMED staff member Kathleen Fredericks, who “always encouraged me to apply through the INMED program and helped me with whatever I needed.”
Gilbert agreed, noting that Fredericks emerges first in his mind as an INMED veteran who made all the difference in his development.
“She was my all-around person to go to for anything I needed, whether help applying for grants, prepping for interviews, troubleshooting the various things that come with applying to schools, or getting by day-to-day,” he said. “INMED in general was—and still is—filled with empathetic, helpful, selfless people. But Kathleen was the best one.”
INMED notwithstanding, the medicine that Dr. Falcon learned two decades ago is different from the medicine being taught to his daughter today, which is also having an effect on recruitment and retention of physicians for rural areas.
Medical education has come a long way in recent years, evolving from sterile lecture halls and textbooks to “active” learning: hospital and clinic simulations, telemedicine and distance learning, and what the SMHS calls patient-centered learning.
“There’s a lot more virtual training and simulation,” Gilbert admitted, noting that telemedicine can help rural providers and patients feel less isolated. “There’s a room up there at UND with some seriously realistic situations, which is cool. There’s a lot more focus on ultrasound. They’re also focusing more on genetics and individualized profiles and treatments based on genetic profiles. They’re getting more of that than I did—it’s almost sci-fi.”
Technology aside, teachers still matter. And for Emily, there was perhaps no better teacher than her father.
“My dad taught me many things, from the importance of family to the basics of family medicine,” said Emily, who had the opportunity to shadow her father at his Belcourt clinic this past summer. “I remember my dad once asking me if I knew the meaning of the word ‘doctor.’ I replied no, and what he told me next still sticks with me today. He said the word doctor, whether it be a Ph.D. or M.D., is derived from a word meaning ‘to teach’ [docere in Latin] so being a doctor involves teaching. If you are not teaching your patients or others, then you are not fulfilling your role as a doctor.”
Calling the experience of watching his daughter go through medical school “very rewarding,” Gilbert likewise gushed with pride for Emily, particularly after working with her in the clinical setting.
“Just seeing her succeed and seeing how focused she is has been great,” he said. “She’s amazing in my mind.”