The power of connection has always influenced Jacob Smith, M.D. ’23.
Growing up with an autoimmune disorder, Smith grew close to his pediatric specialists at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, staying at the hospital for days at a time. Another childhood condition, atopic dermatitis — the most common form of eczema — kickstarted an interest in dermatology.
While those experiences led to medical school at OHSU and an aspiring career as a dermatologist, Smith’s participation in the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence’s Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway has strengthened a new connection — one to his Indigenous heritage.
In this audio story, Smith reflects on how his patient experience at Doernbecher influenced his goals today, and he discusses how OHSU helped him realize his own culturally rooted call to heal.
“I’d always said that I wanted to be a health care provider or a healer. American Indians and Alaska Natives are this land’s first healers. They’re very compassionate and very empathetic people. It’s in our blood to want to do this kind of work, but we’re not traditionally let into these rooms.”
Fourth-year OHSU medical student Jacob Smith is starting to apply to dermatology residency programs. Back in the fall of 2020, the OHSU Foundation connected with Jacob, a descendant of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, just as he began his second year of med school. We recently caught up with him to discuss how the Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway, a program established by the OHSU Northwest Native American Center of Excellence, set him up for success and influenced him to forge stronger connections to his Indigenous roots.
“I’d been very familiar with the dermatologist since I was a toddler probably. I had been seeing a pediatric dermatologist and grown a very good relationship with them and kind of always thought, you know, dermatology would be cool. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid. Being at an institution as a patient at a place like OHSU Doernbecher is just amazing. There’s a reason why they have the reputation that they do have — from the staff all the way to the providers and nurses and everybody there. They definitely make quite the impression on you as a patient. And so definitely growing up as a kid having that experience where I was at Doernbecher for a week straight in the ICU definitely had a big impact on me and kind of solidified anything growing up being like, ‘Oh my gosh. Yeah. This is what I want to do. I want to be like these people.
The Wy’East program was an absolute game-changer. I just randomly got an email one day that was like, ‘Hey, here’s this new Wy’East program that is like a post-bac pathway to get into medical school.’ And it just was absolutely perfect. It seemed like it had my name written on the top of it, you know, like, ‘This is a program for Jake Smith.’ Essentially what the program does, we go through what you would do in the first 12 weeks of medical school, which is considered the foundation of medicine, which is very science-y. It’s essentially four years of all the science you learned in undergrad jammed into three months. And that is where, statistically, when they look at medical school, that is where most students fail is that first three months. It’s the first thing you do in medical school so it’s going to be harder. It’s very science-y and not medical-forward, so a lot of people lose interest or it’s hard to study for it or whatever reason. And they also saw that a lot of American Indians, if they do get into medical school — big if — that is where they failed. And so when we started medical school, we had already seen all the material before over the last year, and so it was a very easy transition into medical school where we all succeeded that first year of medical school because the Wy’East program.
On top of that, the Wy’East program put us in a classroom with other students like ourselves, other American Indians in the Wy’East pathway. Being in that classroom with other American Indians, I’d never really been in a classroom with other American Indians before. I’d always been the only one. So that was a really cool experience as well just kind of learning and being a part of small little community that we had.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have a long history of medicinal parts of their culture and having a person that’s named as their healer. So doing the program made me realize my kind of deeply rooted, allative traits, per se, that have been passed through the generations of my family kind of coming to fruition through this program, through getting into medical school, helped tie in all those factors. Wanting to be a doctor, but not just a doctor. Being a healer of underserved people and working more specifically within tribal communities. Kind of makes me feel a little bit closer to my family tradition and ties.
I would say the biggest difference between the Jacob Smith I am now versus when I started medical school is probably confidence and no longer having an intense feeling of imposter syndrome. Like when I first arrived at OHSU I was like, ‘Oh man, do I even — do they really know who they let in? I’m not quite sure I belong here. Everybody else I’m meeting is absolutely amazing. These people are smart. They have done so many extracurriculars. Some of them have had other careers. They got 4.0s in college.’ And I’m just like, ‘Oh my gosh these people are amazing.’ Slowly over time at OHSU, I’ve gained a lot of confidence in myself. Even originally starting out, getting a scholarship at OHSU, getting the President’s Scholarship at OHSU was a huge validation. I was kind of just like, ‘Oh man. I squeaked in.’ And then I was granted an amazing scholarship that only a few students get every year was a huge validation point for me. Being like, ‘Wow they really want me here and value me here.’ And that kind of really helped grow my confidence And then meting people as I went that just gave me so much encouragement, pats on the back, sending me emails saying, ‘Hey you did a great job.’ Just little things all adding up over the years really gave me the confidence to be like, ‘I’m Jacob Smith. I’m a fourth-year medical student here at OHSU, and I deserve to be here.’ And when I walk across the stage in nine months to grab my diploma that says, ‘Jacob Smith, M.D.,’ at the end of this, like, I deserve this.”