Dr. Dena Wilson '95

Physician, Cardiologist 

Dena Wilson knew by the first grade that she wanted to be a doctor. During her years at Red Cloud, she says she was challenged academically, and gained the skills to help her pursue her dream. Today, she is Acting Director of the Native American Cardiology Program, an Indian Health Service program providing critical care to Native people in Arizona. We spoke with Dr. Wilson about her memories of Red Cloud and the sheer determination it took to get to where she is today.

Q&A with Dr. Dena Wilson, Class of 1995

Talk about your educational experience at Red Cloud—how did the environment prepare you for the future?

I have a million great memories. In classes at Red Cloud, I was definitely pushed. During my senior year, one teacher was encouraging me to take advanced writing, and I remember thinking—I don’t want to take this class. It was my senior year, after all, and I wanted to relax a little. But she pushed me and said it would help prepare me for college. She made the class so fun and exciting, and I have to say, I give her a lot of credit. That class really taught me how to write papers, which is so important in college.

I also credit Roger, one of the volunteers, for introducing me to reading books I would have never tried on my own—the volunteers at Red Cloud were really wonderful. Roger opened my eyes to a whole different level of reading. Because of him, I’m an avid reader today.

Red Cloud wasn’t just about getting by with the basics—and being pushed in that way really helped me later on in life. I can credit many people at Red Cloud for that.

When did you discover you wanted to be a doctor—and did your time at Red Cloud help nourish that dream?

My dream of becoming a doctor was always there. When I was a child, my mom kept a kind of “as I grow up” book, and each year I had to answer questions like what was my favorite color, who was my best friend. The last question in the book was always “what do you want to be when you grow up?” In kindergarten, I think I said I wanted to be a bird! But from the first grade on, it was a doctor. It was always something I wanted to do. 

My mom was a social worker, so she spent a lot of time in the hospital. She was a single parent, and by default I spent a lot of time in the hospital as well. And so it just felt right from a very early age to pursue medicine and help people.

At Red Cloud, it was a particular person who supported my dream of becoming a doctor—Fr. Dennis Ryan, SJ. He and I were very close, and he never stopped encouraging me. He helped open doors for me that I didn’t know how to open. Unfortunately Denny passed away in 1994. He had also wanted to be a doctor, and when he died his parents gave me a stethoscope that belonged to him. When things would get hard, I would look at that stethoscope and say to myself, “I can do this.” That support came from Red Cloud, and his faith and belief in me helped me to succeed.

During college at Chadron State you continued to pursue your dream of a career in medicine—talk about that experience.

At Chadron I started in a pre-med track. But during that time, I also had a first cousin who was diagnosed with Leukemia, so it wasn’t a normal college experience for me. Because I was studying to go to medical school, I took on the responsibility of learning what her treatments would be and offering my family guidance. She died in 1997 after two years of fighting the disease—and that experience was another push toward becoming a doctor.

Once I graduated, I was left trying to figure out how to get into medical school. My mom and I really didn’t know what we were doing, so we went to a bookstore and I bought a book about studying for the MCATs. I took it home, read it, and took the MCATs—and it was really, really hard. For the first time, I knew I’d have to study a lot more. I took the MCATs twice in order to get the scores I needed.  

You didn’t want to move far from home to go to college—but you ended up in Seattle for medical school.

Yes. Back when I was in high school, my mom’s job would take her to Seattle every few months, and she took me with her when I was around 16. I toured the campus at University of Washington while I was there, and I remember thinking, I want to go to medical school here. When you apply you get to select a certain number of medical schools, so I applied to the University of South Dakota, University of North Dakota, and the University of Colorado—and then I checked Washington just to see what would happen. It was the number one primary medical school in the country, and I didn’t think I would get in. But I ended up being accepted.

Leaving home was an incredibly hard decision. I still remember the day I got the acceptance letter. I was happy and sad all at the same time. I had just been accepted to the number one medical school, but then I realized I would have to leave my family. Leaving home was certainly my biggest challenge, and still is to this day.

My aunt, my uncle and my mom drove me to Seattle, and it was just this huge city. My life had been Pine Ridge and Chadron up until that point, and then all of a sudden I’m in Seattle, Washington. So it was a culture shock, and then you’re thrown into medical school, which isn’t like college. You can’t go on your basic smarts, you have to study really hard.

I struggled during my first semester, and many times I thought, “I can’t do this, I need to go home.” Many times I wanted to pack my bags.  But certain things kept me going—Denny’s faith in me, remembering my cousin, and how she’d looked to me specifically for help. She trusted me, and that kept me going. I knew I had to do it.

You did absolutely succeed—and today you’re working as a cardiologist. Talk about what you’re doing now.

After medical school, I went to do my internal medicine residency in Tucson, Arizona. During my second year, a cardiologist named Jim Galloway approached me and asked if I had an interest in joining a program he had started called the Native American Cardiology Program.

It wasn’t a part of my plan—my plan had always been to go back to Pine Ridge and work there as an Indian Health Service (IHS) doctor. So this was another very difficult decision to extend my time away from home. But it was also an amazing opportunity—the Native American Cardiology Program is the only one of its kind in the country. So I stayed, did three more years of a cardiology fellowship and then started working.

Today I’m the sole cardiologist and Acting Director of the Native American Cardiology Program. My office is based in Flagstaff, but most days I’m actually traveling to small clinics across Northern Arizona, providing care in the Hopi and Navajo nations.

Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I knew that in order to receive specialty care, you had to travel two hours to Rapid City. From my grandparents, who both had heart disease and didn’t like to go to the city, I know how important it is to provide this care to Native communities. Despite how challenging it is to be on the road all the time, it’s something I have to keep doing.

Have you always known you wanted to be an Indian Health Service doctor and serve Native communities?

Yes, my motivation was always to be an IHS doctor. I never imagined anything else, and I still don’t. There are certainly challenges to working within the IHS system, but it’s important to me. I remember receiving my own health care on Pine Ridge and I know how deep the need is.  When I see my patients, all I can think of is my grandparents, my own family. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

You’ve had such an extraordinary career so far—what advice would you give to current Red Cloud students who are getting ready to pursue their own big dreams?

I truly think you have to find the motivation in yourself to succeed. It’s amazing to have support, and my family’s support was vital in getting me to where I am today. But the truth is, that motivation has to be within the individual. You have to find it and hang on to it, and you can’t let little things distract you.

I always valued education, and I always wanted to know more. I wasn’t satisfied with someone telling me something—I wanted to find out for myself. My husband teases me that I’m a nosy person, but really I’m just curious! So I’d encourage students to find their own inner curiosity, and use it as a tool when things get hard. Remember you’re doing this because you want more, and need more, from your life.

I still have days when I wonder how I got here. Recently I traveled to Peru, and sitting at Machu Picchu, I asked myself, how did I get all this? But I know that it’s not luck—luck had nothing to do with it. It was pure determination, and the desire to want something more. I just never knew what more meant until now.

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last updated: August 8, 2014