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UMD medical student shares the limelight

The eyes of Chuck Branch welled up as he presented handmade gifts to his teachers and mentors Tuesday at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth campus.

The eyes of Chuck Branch welled up as he presented handmade gifts to his teachers and mentors Tuesday at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth campus.

Branch, nearing the end of his second year of medical school, was awarded an American Medical Association Foundation Minority Scholars award, and followed his American Indian culture by honoring others with a traditional feast and gifts on the same day. When a pile of gifts remained and students and staff were beckoned to choose one, many paused.

"For those of you who are hesitant, this is his way of thanking you," said Rick Smith, director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center at UMD.

Branch, who is Western Band Cherokee and Catawba Shawnee, said the concept is called a giveaway.

"In our culture we try not to put ourselves out above the rest of the community, and whenever we are honored or reach a goal ... we usually end up acknowledging those people that have supported us through trials and tribulations," he said.

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The Onigamising Singers drum group from Grant Language and Arts Magnet School, which Branch helps teach, performed songs. During the giveaway song, those with gifts were instructed to hold them up during the most powerful drumbeats.

Branch, 37, is a nontraditional student with a wife, Shannon Wesley, who graduated from the medical school in 2005, and two young sons.

"Those require other duties and obligations, and trying to get through medical school is tough if you don't have any other obligations," Branch said. "So you need to prop yourself up on other people's shoulders a lot."

Branch is very giving of his time, said Dr. Joy Dorscher, director of the Center for American Indian and Minority Health at UMD.

"He's a traditional man and practices traditional ways," she said.

Branch is the first UMD student to receive the $10,000 scholarship. Eleven were awarded nationally in 2007, and Branch is the second American Indian student to receive one since it was established in 2004, said Dr. Lillian Repesh, associate dean of student affairs and admissions for the medical school at UMD.

"Chuck has a way of combining traditional medicine with Western medicine," she said. "He's compassionate ... and dedicated to his community inside and outside school. He has an incredible connection to his heritage."

Fewer than 1 percent of medical students are American Indian, but there is growth among American Indian students in the Duluth program. Students want to return to their communities to help, Repesh said.

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"Access to health care in Native American communities and rural areas; there is a great need to provide it," she said.

JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers higher education. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com .

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