Shannon Wiegand was two years old when her father, a Fort Peck Tribe member of Sioux and Chippewa heritage, and her Norwegian-Irish mother moved from Montana to Alaska to teach in a native village for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The family later settled in Fairbanks.
Young Shannon liked Alaska and learned about native village life. She also liked science classes in school and had an interest in health care. In junior and senior high school and later in college, she worked as a hospital volunteer. However, she never considered becoming a doctor. "It wasn't something I thought I could do," she says, looking back.
A major factor, Wiegand believes, was the absence of a role model. Growing up in Alaska, she knew no female physicians, no Native American physicians and no physicians of color. "You don't know what you can do until you're exposed to the possibility," she says.
Today Shannon Wiegand is a board-certified family physician on the faculty of the Alaska Family Practice Residency in Anchorage, the state's only medical residency program. The sharp bend in Wiegand's life path tells a lot about the mission and impact of a summer academic enrichment program that she attended while in college. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the program, called the Minority Medical Education Program.
As an undergraduate at Washington State University in Pullman, Wiegand majored in zoology but still with no thought of a medical career. A counselor for Native American students, however, knew of Wiegand's interest in science and suggested she look into the summer enrichment program, which was designed to prepare qualified minority students to compete successfully for medical school admission.
Wiegand applied to attend and was accepted at the University of Washington in Seattle, which at the time was one of six university and university consortia around the country that offered the six-week program. (The number of sites subsequently grew to 12.) She and the other participants lived together on campus and got free meals plus a stipend to cover out-of-pocket expenses.
Science review courses were a key part of the curriculum, and the students took practice versions of the Medical School Admission Test (MCAT). They also got instruction in aspects of the medical school application process. Learning interview skills was particularly important to Wiegand. She was—to use her word—petrified by the prospect of talking to a medical school admission officer. To raise students' comfort level, program personnel conducted mock interviews. A writing class helped Wiegand prepare her autobiographical essay, a critical part of every medical school application.
All of that was beneficial. Without it, "I wouldn't have known where to start" as a medical school applicant, she says. But the program's most valuable gift was what she did not get growing up in Alaska: role models.
Being exposed to people from a variety of backgrounds in an academic medicine setting gave Wiegand confidence that she did have, after all, what it would take to get in and through medical school. "When I left [the program], I was going to medical school. It was kind of like: 'Eureka.'"
One inspirational figure was Walt Hollow, MD, a member of the Assiniboine-Sioux tribes and a family physician who was the first American Indian to graduate from the University of Washington School of Medicine. Another was Charlie Garcia, MPH, then director of the university's summer program and an important source of encouragement for Wiegand. "[The program] really influenced my life path. I doubt that I would have applied to medical school if it were not for that program," she says.
Wiegand won admission to a collaborative medical education program that involves Washington and four western states without medical schools of their own: Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. The name of the program—incorporating the first letter of each of the participating states—is WWAMI.
As do all WWAMI students, Wiegand completed her first year of medical school at her home-state university (in her case, the University of Alaska in Anchorage) and the remaining three at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Wiegand got her MD in 1994, becoming the first University of Washington summer program alum to graduate from the medical school.
The strategy behind the summer program is that increasing the number of minority and disadvantaged students in the medical profession will result in improved access to care for the nation's underserved populations. Shannon Wiegand's story supports that proposition.
She entered the WWAMI program intending to practice medicine among native people—which is what she has done. Following medical school, she completed a three-year family medicine residency at the Seattle Indian Health Board, a community health clinic that serves American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the greater Seattle area. She then returned to Alaska and worked for the Alaska Native Medical Center, a native-owned hospital in Anchorage.
Subsequently, she moved back to Seattle and worked for the Seattle Indian Health Board. In 2003, homesick for Alaska, she took a faculty position with the Alaska Family Practice Residency. In addition to being teacher and preceptor, she administered the program's medical clinic and has patients of her own. A board-certified family physician, she has devoted her career to providing care to American Indians and Alaskan Natives. As of 2011, she was practicing at the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center in Fairbanks.
The summer medical program was instrumental in her career, says Wiegand, now 43. "If it influenced anybody else like it did me, it's been a pretty powerful program."