A model for success
New M.D. aims to help her people defeat disease and light a path for young Diné
By Glenda Rae Davis
WINDOW ROCK, March 23, 2012
At age 6, a Crystal, N.M., girl declared that she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. At age 32, she made that dream come true.
Last December, Rachelle Miles received her Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of South Dakota's Sanford School of Medicine, and with it the right to be known as Dr. Miles.
"I feel a great sense of accomplishment and I can't believe that I made it this far," she said. "All the successes, happiness, sad times, long hours of studying, and great deal of sacrifices were well worth it."
For Miles, who is Tábaahá born for Naakaii Dine'é, the dream began in a book her father gave her when she was a child. She can distinctly remember a picture of doctors sitting at a round table.
All were white except for one, to whom the others were looking with respect. He was Taylor McKenzie, renowned as the first Navajo to become a medical doctor and, beyond that, a surgeon.
"I was in awe at how the other doctors seemed to be looking up to him," Miles recalled of the photo. "You didn't see that often, Caucasians looking up to Navajos."
"Then I found out he was in medical school. It was my first encounter with a Navajo being able to have that kind of success," she said.
Miles said that decided it for her.
"I wanted to be successful too. I wanted to go out and do what I needed, no matter what, to get where he was," she said.
In 1997, Miles graduated third in her class from Window Rock High School and was accepted at Arizona State University. In 2003, she graduated from ASU with a bachelor's degree in chemistry.
She spent two years working with the National Institutes of Health, doing research at Phoenix Indian Medical Center on type 2 diabetes within the Pima Indian community.
Her mentor on the project, Dr. Jonathan Krakoff, pushed her to apply for medical school, she said.
"It was also working with him that helped me to decide to become an endocrinologist," Miles said. "That was what he was and I liked how he was able to treat patients and work on research at the same time. I liked that flexibility."
An endocrinologist specializes in hormone imbalances, which include Navajo-prevalent diseases like diabetes and thyroid problems.
"I want to come back to the reservation and help Native Americans with these particular diseases," Miles said, adding that she also aspires to "be a positive influence for the people. I want to be a role model for young Navajos. They need to know that if they have a dream they need to just go for it."
Miles said children "shouldn't listen to the people that say 'your not capable' or 'you not good enough.' They're wrong. If it's in your heart you can do it. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't."
It's a message no one should hear at home, though many young Navajos do hear it in attitude, if not in words. Miles, however, was lucky.
She grew up seeing her parents work with what education they had to raise their children, and drew inspiration from it. Her father was a stay-at-home dad, taking care of the kids while working as a shade-tree mechanic for friends and extended family members.
Her mother worked her way up from an entry-level secretary position with the tribe to her current position as a health systems administrator at Dzilth-Na-O-Dithle Health Center.
"My father, Eugene Miles, was the one that told me to reach far and beyond my own expectancies, to make something of myself," Miles said. "And my mother, Laverne Miles, who played an instrumental part in the spiritual and religious side of things. Both my (Navajo) traditions and (Christian) religion are additional reasons I am here today."
Medical school is a daunting goal for anyone to attempt, but Miles found a way up the cliff through a program called Indians Into Medicine, a program at the University of North Dakota's School of Medicine that selects 10 to 12 young Natives each year and helps them prepare for a career in medicine.
She was accepted into INMED in 2007. It was during this time that she met her future husband, Kevin Moeckel, a Missouri-born half Navajo, half Anglo who has lived most of his life in Window Rock. He was working as a fitness specialist at the wellness center in Fort Defiance, and stayed here as Miles traveled 1,500 miles to get her closer to her dream at UND.
But he always supported her education goals, she said, and so helped bolster the emotional strength she needed to finish her schooling.
She did two years of study at North Dakota and then transferred to Sanford, saying, "I transferred to USD because they had a larger population of Native Americans in their area" and being surrounded by other Natives eased her homesickness.
On Dec. 17, Miles walked across a stage in Vermillion, S.D., to receive her diploma, the first of several that will eventually hang on her office wall to reassure patients that they are in expert care.
As a pioneer in one of the most demanding of all professional disciplines, she still has far to go, but her future looks very bright.
On Friday, Miles learned that she has been accepted into a three-year residency at the University of Arizona's Health Sciences Center in Tucson. Beyond that is a three-year fellowship at UA to earn her specialist's credentials as an endocrinologist.
For now, she is taking a moment to thank all the people who have believed in her and encouraged her.
"I know I made the people in my life very happy - from my husband, parents, siblings, (maternal) grandparents, nálís (paternal grandfather's line), my mentors Dr. Jonathan Krakoff and Dr. Anne Sumner, to people at the scholarship office that funded me, Mr. Peterson Zah, family, friends, and most of all the Lord."