‘Trust and Understanding’

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

By Jane Erikson

Vanessa Jensen, MD, will never forget her first surgical trauma case – and how the experience left her feeling conflicted.

Jensen was in her third year as a medical student. The patient was a UA student, the victim of a hit-and-run, bleeding out from a ruptured spleen.

“I never felt so exhilarated and challenged at the same time,” Jensen recalls. “We were in the OR within 15 minutes of her arrival to the trauma bay. She underwent a splenectomy, and the next day she was talking and thanking us."

The conflict stemmed from the traditional Navajo beliefs that Jensen’s parents and grandparents taught her. For example, it is considered improper to handle another person’s body parts or bodily fluids. “So you can understand,” Jensen says, “that surgery is considered taboo by the most traditional Navajos.”

And yet, this was the first clinical rotation that she really enjoyed.

Jensen grew up in Tuba City, near the western edge of the Navajo reservation. She is the descendant of Navajo medicine people; her grandfathers were medicine men, who were a source of guidance and healing.

Her decision to choose her medical specialty was a family decision. So after the surgical trauma case, she shared her concerns with her parents. Together, they sought the advice of a medicine man.

His advice was pragmatic. “Our world is changing,” he told Jensen, “and if you continue with your traditional beliefs, and do (surgery) only for good, and with respect, it is allowed.’”

Today, Vanessa Jensen, MD, a graduate of the UA College of Medicine Class of 2003, and a 2009 graduate of its six-year surgical residency, is a general surgeon with the hospital of Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation.

But there were other challenges along the way.

As a teen and undergraduate, Jensen loved to volunteer at the same hospital where she operates today. She wanted to help people as a traditional Navajo healer, but knew this required an innate spiritual ability, “a special gift or calling from the deities, the holy people.”

“I kept looking for a sign, but it never came,” she says.

Jensen grew up helping brand cattle and sheer sheep at her grandparents’ ranch on Gray Mountain. “Navajos value livestock, and with my love of animals, I thought this was the way to help my people.”

But after high school, a volunteer opportunity with a veterinarian practice taught her that being around sick animals was emotionally draining. It was her mother who suggested Jensen become a “people doctor.”

Jensen had never seen a Native American woman doctor.

“Mom, you’re being silly. Someone like me being a doctor? I don’t think so,” Jensen recalled telling her mother.

Her mother reminded her of all the hours she spent volunteering at the hospital. “You might as well do a job you love every day,” her mom said.

Jensen graduated from the UA in 1996 with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, then was chosen for the  prestigious Four Directions Summer Research Program at Harvard. The faculty there strongly encouraged her to apply to medical schools, including Harvard.

But Boston was so far from home; she realized she needed her friends and family close by. She was accepted at several medical schools, and chose the UA College of Medicine.

Jensen married Ray DesRosiers, a retired U.S. Navy deep-sea diver who also is from Tuba City, on Dec. 31, 2011 - one year after their first date. While she is at the hospital, he cares for their son, Bryce, who will be 2 on July 3.

Returning to the reservation was always Jensen and DesRosiers’ goal. “We are happy here,” she says. “I also feel it’s important for Native American doctors to return to their reservations, to make a difference in the lives of their people.

“And there’s an element of trust and understanding between my Navajo patients and I. This is one less barrier to overcome.”