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More Native Americans Enrolling In Med School. A St. Pete Grad Plans To Join Them

James's father holds a traditional tribal blanket in white and blue and drapes it over his son's shoulders.
Courtesy: James Fackrell
James Fackrell and his father are descendants of the Snoqualmie Tribe in Washington state.

James Fackrell, a descendant of the of the Snoqualmie Tribe in Washington State, is on his way to Brown after gaining entry to the university’s guaranteed medical school acceptance program.

James Fackrell, 17, knew he wanted to be a doctor from an early age. In part, because he required so much medical care himself. Also, because he saw that his Native American relatives needed better access to care.

Now, the recent graduate of St. Petersburg’s Northeast High School is on his way to Brown University in Rhode Island, after gaining entry to the Ivy League school’s guaranteed medical school acceptance program.

He’s part of a growing number of students from minority and indigenous backgrounds that are going to medical school.

The number of first-year medical students in 2020 who identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native rose 8%, compared to a year earlier, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. Similar increases were seen among Black and Hispanic medical students.

These groups have long been under-represented in medicine, and their communities disproportionately suffered illness and death from the coronavirus.

“It's really been ever since I can remember that I've had horrible problems with my asthma,” said Fackrell, who is a descendant of the of the Snoqualmie Tribe in Washington State.

His father is a member of the tribe, and serves in the U.S. military. His family lived near their tribal lands when James was a child, and he attended kindergarten at a Native American school.

“When I lived in Washington, I ended up going to the hospital so much that I started calling it 'the Popsicle place,' and asking to go there voluntarily, just because every time I went, the doctors would give me a Popsicle,” Fackrell said.

His appreciation for medicine and the medical field only grew, as he moved from place to place due to his father’s military duties.

“A large problem with my tribe and most Native Americans is the lack of accessible and affordable health care. And so that's something that, growing up, really was a problem that I saw a lot,” he said.

 James Fackrell (center), with members of his family stand near waterfalls on tribal lands in Washington state
courtesy James Fackrell /
James Fackrell (center), with members of his family stand near waterfalls on tribal lands in Washington state

“And especially when I started to move away as part of my dad's military career, I was having access to all new kinds of doctors to help me with my asthma and recurring bouts of pneumonia.

“I was exposed to so many amazing health care professionals that I just knew it was something that I wanted to do — to take care of my elders the way they took care of me in the beginning years of my life.”

While the coronavirus pandemic didn’t have a big influence on his decision to pursue a medical degree, Fackrell says it has highlighted the need to educate people about the value of vaccines.

“There's a lot of stigma going on with different vaccinations and different aspects of health care that people — I don't feel like — understand or know enough about to fully make their decision,” he said.

“As such, there tends to be a bit more caution and a feeling of danger when addressing those different solutions to healthcare problems.”

Fackrell said making medical care accessible, affordable and understandable are key elements to improving people's health.

“I'd also like to help educate my people a bit more, just because personally, I know some people who still do believe that vaccinations are the root of all evil,” Fackrell said.

Fackrell graduated from Northeast on June 2 and heads to college soon.

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I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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