In our Storyteller profile series, we highlight the dreams, journeys and achievements of Doyon Foundation students, alumni and supporters. In this episode of Storyteller, we speak with student Nikki Fennimore, who is in her fourth year of residency training in obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health and Science University. You can watch or listen to Nikki’s full profile, or read a transcript, with minor edits for clarity.
ALICIA KANGAS: Today, in this episode of Storyteller, we are here with Nikki Fennimore. Thank you, Nikki, for joining us today. To start with, tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, who your family is.
NIKKI FENNIMORE: Thanks for having me. I grew up in Galena, Alaska. My parents are Carrie and Bruce Fennimore, who were teachers in Galena. They’re now retired. And then my grandparents in Galena are Jenny and Dave Pelkola. And my grandparents on my dad’s side live in Wrangell and they’re Alma and LeRoy Fennimore. My great grandma was Madeline Solomon, who lived in Galena for a while and also was a teacher there.
JENNA SOMMER: Thank you. Tell us a little about your educational journey.
NIKKI FENNIMORE: When I graduated high school, I knew that I wanted to be a doctor, but it’s not something that I always wanted to do. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, honestly, through junior high and high school. It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school when I decided.
I went to college in Boise, Idaho, at Boise State University. Part of that was I really wanted to get out of Alaska because I wanted to experience something different. It was sort of a difficult decision because my family was all still home in Alaska and everyone else in my family had gone to school in the University of Alaska system.
After undergrad, I went to medical school at the University of Wisconsin. And now I’m back on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon. I’m at Oregon Health and Science University, and I’m doing a four-year residency program in OB-GYN, and I’m now in my last year. So technically, in June, I’ll graduate and I’ll be officially done with my training at that time. So that’s really exciting.
ALICIA KANGAS: Congratulations. Quite an accomplishment. So why did you choose medicine?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: In Alaska, you have limited access to health care. In Galena, we have a physician there now and we have a great care team at the clinic there now. But when I was growing up, we had very limited resources there in terms of getting care.
For example, I was born early in Galena at the clinic, and the person who delivered me had never delivered a baby before and luckily everything went fine. But hearing that story growing up and then also seeing a lot of my friends and family need care in emergency situations in Galena and then needing to be medevacked out. The specialty I’ve chosen now is OB-GYN so I’m not in emergency medicine, I’m not in family medicine, which is really what rural Alaska needs.
But that was sort of my inspiration to go into medicine, was just seeing an underserved population and wanting to give back in some way to an underserved population. I might not eventually end up back in Galena, but I think just getting care to people who need it was something that was really important to me. So that was the main thing: it was growing up in Galena and seeing the lack of care that we used to have there.
JENNA SOMMER: How did your education help you get where you are today?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: This whole journey has been education. It’s been 12 years since I graduated high school. Even though I’m in training and residency, seeing patients, doing surgery, I think of it as essentially being in school still. Because I am learning every day. I’m still not my own boss yet. And so essentially my whole life to this point has been my education. It’s a hard question to answer because I feel like I’m still in it. In this story. It’s been a long road but I feel like I’ve learned a lot and it’s been great.
ALICIA KANGAS: Wow. Thank you. So what has been your biggest challenge you’ve faced in your educational journey and how do you overcome it? I mean, you went from a small, rural school straight into a big university out of state.
NIKKI FENNIMORE: When I was in high school, I was one of those people who was like, “I want to get out of Alaska. I want to get out of this tiny town and see what else is out there.” And that was really exciting to me in the beginning. And then very quickly like you said, I was in this huge city for me.
Boise, Idaho, has 200,000 people, I believe, and it felt huge. Compared to other cities, it’s a really small city but it felt huge. It was a huge adjustment; everything was different. I moved there in the summer and it was getting dark at night and I was like, “Why is it getting dark?” I never really lived outside of Alaska.
It was weird. And then by virtue of wanting to go into medicine, I essentially couldn’t go back to Alaska. I know that the University of Washington has a program where you can do medical school with them and do some rotations in Alaska. But it’s hard because that’s just one opportunity to go to medical school. So I felt like my opportunities to pursue medicine while also being in the state of Alaska was difficult. So it was difficult to be away from family and away from home while I chose this path.
I knew that I didn’t have an option to be close to family while pursuing my education. I think that was the most difficult part, just being away. Being away from culture as well, it was really hard. Luckily, when I was in Wisconsin for medical school, there were several other Native American students who came from different tribes, and we would hang out, have dinner together, share stories, so that was a nice way to connect.
In terms of overcoming this feeling of being disconnected from my culture, disconnected from my family, luckily we have things like Zoom and texting that make it easy to stay connected overall, but it’s definitely been difficult. I think one of the hard things, too, is being away from family. In my mind, my grandparents and my parents are still the same age they were when I left 12 years ago. So going back, it’s a little bit hard to see people get older and feel like you missed a lot.
So, while there were challenges in terms of my education, in terms of school hours and homework and getting assignments in on time, I think the most challenging part was just being away. And I’m trying to navigate how to be creative to still feel connected to my culture and my family.
JENNA SOMMER: Do you expect to continue your education in the future? If so, what are your plans?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: Medicine is going to be something where I’ll always be learning. Nowadays with the Internet, I have patients who come to my clinic and they have read about everything. And they’ll quote a study and say, “Oh, I read this study, have you heard about this?”
So I feel like now it’s expected for people in health care to be very up-to-date on recent literature and research, because patients are coming in very well informed about their medical conditions, which is great. I think by virtue of that, I’m always going to be learning. I think after this year, my last year of residency, I’ll be done with formal training. I could continue on and subspecialize; that would be an extra three years of training. I don’t plan to do that. I plan to be a general OB-GYN in the community. And so my formal training will be done, but I feel like I’ll always be learning and studying and trying to stay up-to-date on all of the new medical things that are coming out.
ALICIA KANGAS: So apart from school and work, what other activities or community involvement do you have?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: I’m looking forward to being finished with residency because I feel like I’ll have a lot more time. I don’t think a lot of people know this, but the residents in the U.S., we get capped at 80 hours a week and we work that. So it’s very frequent that we’re working 70 to 80 hours a week and sometimes more.
So it really does feel like my job and my learning is my whole life at this point. But when I do get time off, I enjoy spending time with my partner. He’s also in medicine. He’s in general surgery so we don’t see each other very often. And then we have two cats and just kind of enjoy spending time home and relaxing.
When I was in high school, I used to do beadwork and I went away from that for a long time. I’ve picked that up again recently. So that’s something that I’m focusing on right now. When I graduate from residency and have a lot more time, I’m looking forward to being more involved in the community and with students. At OHSU here in Portland, we have a program that’s specific for Native American medical students. I think right now there’s probably like 20 or 30 students in that group. So we’ll have get-togethers every now and then, like beading nights, cooking nights. And I haven’t really been able to participate in that during residency.
So I’m hopeful that once I’m done, I’ll be able to be more involved and sort of be a mentor for those students. Because I feel like I got to where I am today because of my mentors, and I definitely want to give back in that way to the next generation.
JENNA SOMMER: Thank you. What role does your culture or Native language play in your life?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: I think it can be hard to have that play into my work. We don’t have a lot of Native patients here in Portland. The few that I have had, it’s been really nice to care for them and even though we come from different cultures and different tribes, we just have a connection about that way of life.
So I think being able to have patients who have a provider who looks like them and was raised in a similar way to them is really meaningful to me and also to patients. So whenever I can, I try to learn more about a patient aside from just their medical conditions. I’ve been surprised by the number of patients I’ve had who it’s actually not listed anywhere in their medical record that they’re Native.
Then when I get talking to them more, like if I’m wearing some beadwork, they’ll ask me about it, and I’ll find out that they grew up in a tribe nearby. So I think that is a really important part of what I want my future practice to be – being open about my culture and who I am and having patients feel comfortable coming to me with their lives in general. Because I think that in our culture, at least my experience growing up in Galena, we at times had a mistrust of the medical system.
So I think it’s really important to have people working in health care who are trusted in communities that haven’t always had the best experience with health care.
ALICIA KANGAS: What kind of support did you receive from Doyon Foundation and how did it help you as a student?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: Doyon Foundation funded me essentially through most of my education, all through undergrad. Every single year I had a Doyon Foundation scholarship. And then I believe all through medical school as well, I have had a Doyon scholarship, so that was huge. The cost of school … talking to my mom, she told me that when she went to college, she paid $500 or something. It’s just crazy, the way the cost has changed over time.
So Doyon Foundation has been huge in funding my education. And it’s already stressful to be away from home, to be going to school and not feel like you have a lot of support, at least physically where you are. Doyon Foundation really helps with the funding.
Even more so than the funding, I felt supported by members and felt encouraged to continue my journey. And I don’t think I ever really intended to be a role model for a student that’s coming after me. But I feel like over time, I sort of grew into that role and Doyon Foundation helps with that. I did an interview a few years ago. It wasn’t like a video interview. It was like typed answers to questions for students. So I feel like Doyon Foundation has also been great in making role models and helping students coming after. Not just me … I’ve seen some of my friends do a Storyteller series. So just overall in terms of funding and moral support, Doyon Foundation has been really great.
JENNA SOMMER: Thank you. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for students today?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: I’ll probably sound cliche but I would just say don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything. Growing up in rural Alaska and in a small community, it can be difficult at times and communities are typically very supportive. But I think at times it’s also looked down upon to leave. It’s not typically the way that our culture does things.
So I think just feeling supported and feeling like you can do whatever you want and there are people who have done it before and who can help you. I think that Doyon Foundation is a great resource for people to reach out to, to get connected to mentors and role models. And so that’s what I would say.
When I was in high school, I told somebody I wanted to go to medical school, and they told me that in Galena I’m a big fish in a little pond and that when I’m out in the real world, I’ll be a little fish in a big pond and won’t do very well. And so that was something that I always remembered and wanted to prove wrong. I think that it’s unfortunate that our students are being told things like that and they shouldn’t be.
And so just do whatever you want and try. The worst that can happen is you fail and then you get back up and somebody will help you. There’s always somebody there to help.
ALICIA KANGAS: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
NIKKI FENNIMORE: I would just say I’m happy to be a resource for anybody who has questions. I know that I’m in a very specific field of medicine and OB-GYN in particular. But along my educational journey of 12 years, I’ve met a lot of people who are in different specialties in medicine but also different career paths. So I feel like I have good advice and good connections if students wanted to reach out to have mentors or have me connect them to people. I’m always happy to be a resource for students.
ALICIA KANGAS: Wow. Well, thank you so much for your time today and sharing your story with us.
NIKKI FENNIMORE: Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.