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Giving Ute children a Head Start for health

School bus

“It is hard to get a blood pressure reading on a tiny person,” commented one first-year medical student, Emma, after her day at the Ute Indian Tribe Head Start. After taking a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program and the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine were able to return to Fort Duchesne to help the Ute Indian Tribe Head Start program fulfill one of its important goals: ensuring that all the young children have a yearly physical.

On Oct. 3 and 17, dozens of staff, students, doctors and undergraduate students from the U traveled to the community.

Making the effort particularly special, Timina Powaukee and Develiah Alanis, both students at the U, and who grew up attending the Ute Indian Tribe Head Start, were able to help out. Working alongside the medical students and the physician assistant students, Powaukee noted, “ I have cousins and nieces and nephews I was treating today. The fact that I was able to help these kids was super beneficial to me.”

Dr. Richard Backman, associate professor for the Physician Assistant Program enjoys some coloring with a Head Start student.

Alanis found herself comforting kids by coloring with them and reading stories while they waited for their exams. Over the course of the two days, dozens of medical students and physician assistant students came out with their supervisors and professors to conduct physicals. Alanis commented, “I learned how they divided up health into areas of dental, height and weight, checking vitals and taking blood samples. It surprised me that all these folks came out, and inspiring that they do this.”

It really was a “one-stop shop” as Stacey Swilling, the state dental director, described the setup at the main Head Start building. The children were escorted by a physician assistant or medical student from one station to measure their height and weight, to another where they received a dental exam. At other stations, vitals were recorded, blood tested for lead and anemia and a vision test was completed on all the 3- and 4-year-olds. By having all these services in one place at one time, the Ute Indian Tribe Head Start was able to start the school year with information that will help the young children meet the mission of the program, which is to develop the learning skills, cognition, physical and motor skills and social and emotional readiness to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

Clearly, the young Head Start students were not the only learners to benefit from this collaborative effort. “This has been very good. It is helping me build my skills of interaction with little ones,” remarked Safia, a physician assistant student, ”Plus, this area is beautiful.”

“I am super glad I came,” said one medical student named Zach. “This is way more fun than class. I am supposed to be taking an exam today.” One of the primary organizers of the day, David Sandweiss, M.D., quickly pointed out to Zach, “You won’t remember the test, but you will remember today.”

The Ute Tribe Head Start serves about 97 children from the Uintah Basin. The U’s medical school has 450 medical students and the Physician Assistant Program at the U is one of the oldest in the country and its director, Jared Spackman, has been traveling out to Fort Duchesne and collaborating with the Indian Health Services for years. The interactions between all these players in the medical community seemed to buoy all involved. As Powaukee, a junior and a recent graduate of the Native American Summer Research Internship explained, “I hung out with PAs and that was really fun. I told them about my research I did this summer, and they told me how they got to PA school.”

Maitree Shah, a physician assistant student, examines one of her preschool patients.

As Amanda Moloney-Johns, a member of the faculty in the Physician Assistant Program said, “I’ve worked at the U for 12 years, and I never miss one of these days. It brings it to the core of why we do medicine. I love seeing the students learn more about medicine and all the factors that feed into medicine. This is so much better than a PowerPoint!”

“I was surprised there were so many medical students and PA students that were learning from being out here,” said Alanis, a sophomore currently studying nursing, who agreed that learning was happening on many different levels. “The day kept me interested in the medical field.”

There are intangibles to days like this, as Powaukee pointed out: “When we debriefed afterward, I honestly thought it was amazing. For me, it is all coming full circle, and I am able to help the kids at my Head Start,” she said. “Little kid hugs are just so cute. It’s all pretty cool.”

After all the work was done, on the final day, the Ute Indian Tribe Head Start showed the many visitors from the U true Ute hospitality and had a beautiful lunch of Indian tacos prepared by chef Sidney Atwnie for all. Sherrilla McKinley, director of Head Start for the Ute Tribe, found it “remarkable that so many people came out to us to help. We are grateful.”

Creating a well-trodden path between the University of Utah and the eight tribal nations of Utah is one of the primary goals envisioned by many colleges and schools throughout the U. When the U is succeeding, it looks like this.

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Last Updated: 12/12/23