Montana State University

A Nurse's Niche: Soon-to-be MSU graduate aspires to work with the Indian Health Service

May 3, 2010 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service


Five years ago, Martha Garcia and her three children moved more than 1,000 miles from home so that she could enroll in the MSU College of Nursing. This week, she is graduating and looking forward to starting her career with the Indian Health Service. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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When Montana State University nursing student Martha Garcia describes how Native American nurses are in demand on reservations, she tells this story: Last summer, when Garcia was volunteering at an emergency room on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana, she witnessed something that made her realize she was needed. A Native American woman was brought into the emergency room, disoriented and distressed, and medical staff members were unable to calm her down. The patient saw Garcia, another Native American, and things began to change.

"We made eye contact, and she reached over, took my hand, and asked me if I was Crow," Garcia said. "I said, 'no, I'm Pueblo.' The woman immediately calmed down. I think she felt like she would be safe with me. We are the same people.

"I think it comforts Native American patients to see that Natives will be caring for them," Garcia said, adding that she knows there are also many dedicated non-Native professionals on reservations.

It's one of the reasons Garcia, 45, is planning to work as a nurse in Montana for the Indian Health Service (IHS) following her graduation from MSU. And as she looks toward commencement and reflects on the path she has taken to get to this point, she says she wouldn't have made it without her children, her faith, and the many different people at MSU who have helped her and exhibited kindness along the way.

Garcia said she has always known that she wanted to be a nurse, but she has taken a circuitous route to get there.

"Even as a little girl, I was always trying to help people," she said. "Becoming a nurse is something that has always been in my heart."

Garcia grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., where her mother worked as a nurse's aide and later made hosiery at a company that is now known as Hanes. Garcia's sister has worked in the medical field, too. In addition to a number of other jobs after high school, Garcia herself spent about 10 years working as a medical assistant in rheumatology, internal medicine, family practice and pediatric offices, and at that point she was considering attending school to become a nurse. But the program she was looking into in Albuquerque was so popular that it would be two years before her application would even be considered.

Because of the long wait, Garcia thought about studying environmental science instead, and so she enrolled in a program that took her to Costa Rica. While there, she became friends with Dan Buresh, a professor at Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, who had heard about MSU's Caring For Our Own (CO-OP) program, which works to recruit and graduate Native American nursing students.

"I believe that meeting Dan and learning about the CO-OP program was why I went to Costa Rica. It's incredible how Creator works," Garcia said.

She didn't hesitate to take a leap. Garcia, who had just turned 40 and had recently gone through a divorce, moved to Bozeman with her three kids - who were then 13, 9 and 7 -- in the summer of 2005 and started courses at MSU that fall.

"I needed a change, and this just seemed right," she said.

It might seem that the odds would be against a non-traditional aged, single mother who came more than 1,000 miles from home to earn a bachelor's degree in a competitive field. Yet Garcia, who is quiet, bright and articulate, has distinguished herself as a motivated and hard-working person.

In fact, her quiet motivation is precisely what makes Garcia remarkable, said Jim Burns, American Indian student adviser in the Department of Native American Studies.

"Martha is representative of a lot of students out there -- single parents particularly -- that I would call unsung heroes," Burns said. "She exemplifies a lot of qualities that go unnoticed: people silently doing their work everyday, completing their tasks, doing things behind the scenes."

Burns said Garcia has played a "crucial" role in helping to organize the American Indian Council pow wow and has been "someone you can count on to call upon for any sort of assistance."

Moving across the country with her children to a place where she knew no one required facing a number of challenges and overcoming numerous obstacles, Burns added.

"I just admire her tenacity and her character. She made a conscious decision to improve her life by pursuing a degree in nursing and is trying to be a role model for her family by pursuing a college education... a lot of students don't make it, and Martha did. She never lost sight of who she was as an individual and what she wanted to give back to her community. She's very concerned about health care issues in Indian country. I'm sure she'll be a phenomenal health care professional."

Garcia points to several factors that have motivated her to become a nurse: the need for Native nurses, her faith, her children and an incredible support network at MSU.

"I see the need for Native nurses," Garcia said. "It's hard when you walk onto a reservation and all of the health care professionals are white. It's difficult for patients, particularly the elders."

Megkian Doyle, an academic adviser in the CO-OP program, agrees the need is great, particularly because of a high turnover rate with doctors who work on reservations. Many stay for about three years, she said, often as a condition of loans they received while in school.

"Martha helped interview some elders about this," Doyle said. "What she found is that elders were appreciative of the IHS services, but they wanted (health care workers) who would understand them, stay longer and be consistent.

"There's a cultural understanding piece there, and Martha is very tuned into that," Doyle added.

Garcia is also convinced that she is meant to be at MSU.

"I believe Creator works for us in such amazing ways," Garcia said. "I remember praying to Creator that everything would work out as it was supposed to. I'm still in awe of how it has."

And, during the times when working toward her goal has been particularly challenging, Garcia credits the support networks at MSU and her children as having been crucial to her decision to stick with it.

In particular, the CO-OP program was a continual source of help.

CO-OP staff members helped Garcia secure housing. They connected her with a mentor, with whom Garcia would talk and go hiking. They helped Garcia arrange her class schedule and found tutors when she needed them.

"If it wasn't for the CO-OP program, I wouldn't have lasted here," Garcia said. "They served as family. They made me feel like I wasn't alone. I moved here and I didn't know anyone, but they showed us so much support. It was amazing to me that they took us in just like family."

The American Indian Council was also a valuable resource for Garcia.

"The AIC has been like a safe haven here," she said. "You can go there (to the American Indian Student Center) and be comfortable. You feel like you belong.

"I know that if I didn't have those two programs, I would have packed up and gone home," she added.

Garcia said she almost did anyway. One challenge that seemed particularly insurmountable was a required anatomy and physiology course.

"I didn't pass it the first time, and I just fell apart," Garcia recalled. "I thought I couldn't do it."

But CO-OP staff members encouraged Garcia to take it again. They said there were tutors who could help Garcia. And her daughter encouraged her to try again, too, which was a pivotal moment.

"My daughter said, 'so things get hard and you want to pack up and go home?' And I thought, 'Ouch! Who's the parent here?' She was right, and I didn't want her to look at me as a person who would give up."

So Garcia took anatomy and physiology for a second time that summer and was successful.

"I couldn't believe it, but I did it," she said.

Indeed, Doyle says Garcia's persistence and strong work ethic have served her well.

Doyle describes Garcia as a good student who is patient and self-deprecating. She said Garcia has also been tutoring CO-OP students in the lower division nursing courses as a volunteer - even though Doyle is certain Garcia could be paid for her efforts.

Garcia is also "incredibly dedicated," Doyle said. "She's had challenges here, but she has stayed here anyway. That really means something."

Garcia is set to graduate from MSU with a bachelor's degree on May 8, several weeks ahead of her oldest daughter's graduation from high school.

It's an accomplishment that has helped her to realize that if a person is willing to work hard, the resources are there to help that person succeed.

"As long as you have the desire, the support is there," Garcia said.

Martha Garcia, mlgarcia1349@gmail.com