Alumna Patricia Nez Henderson on breaking boundaries at Yale

Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson talks on stage with Yale President Peter Salovey.
Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson talks on stage with Yale President Peter Salovey. (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Patricia Nez Henderson ’94 M.P.H., ’00 M.D. discussed her work promoting the wellness of the Navajo community in a conversation with President Peter Salovey on Sept. 17 before a packed audience at the Yale Center for British Art.

Henderson attended Yale School of Public Health and Yale School of Medicine, where she was the first Native American woman to graduate. An award in her honor is given by the medical school each year to recognize a graduate committed to improving health among American Indian populations.

The conversation was part of the President’s Women of Yale Lecture Series, launched by Salovey two years ago — which, the president said, “represents the remarkable success of coeducation at Yale.” The university will celebrate the 50th anniversary of women in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of women at Yale next year.

Ever since her days as a Yale student, Dr. Henderson has overcome obstacles to achieve her dreams and help those around her,” Salovey said. “Her life is a model of resilience, determination, and service to others.”

During the discussion, Henderson talked about how professional recognition for traditional forms of healing was still in its infancy when she was at Yale, but said her class led what would become a growing interest in “bringing traditional healers into the health care system.”

Henderson grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, surrounded by family, and inspired by her grandfather who was a traditional healer. Her transition to Yale — particularly during her medical school years — was not easy, she said. “Our Navajo community was being forcibly relocated. It was a lot to process.” She didn’t speak about it to her classmates or professors, she said, but felt as though “my heart was being severed from my head.”

While attending an American Indian Science and Engineering Society conference, however, Henderson met Wilma Mankiller, former chair of the Cherokee tribe. She told Mankiller “I’m ready to quit,” to which Mankiller responded: “Are you done crying? You have to stay at Yale.” Mankiller encouraged Henderson to be a leader for future Native American students who would be inspired by her to achieve their own dreams. 

Henderson and Salovey in front of a packed house at the Yale Center for British Art.
Henderson and Salovey in front of a packed house at the Yale Center for British Art. (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Henderson’s holistic approach to medicine led her to public health research and education and to the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health in South Dakota, where she is vice president. One of her primary focuses has been on smoking cessation. She noted in the talk that cigarettes are used in Native American ceremonial events as an alternative to traditional tobacco. In addition, she said, the vast majority of casinos operated by Native American tribes allow smoking. Her work involves both educating tribal leaders and using data around, for instance, the revenue of smoke-free casinos, as a teaching tool.

Where states were 20-30 years ago [on smoking cessation] is where tribes are now,” Henderson said, noting that the industry has targeted tribes for years with prolific ads and cheaper cigarette costs. “We’re advocating for tribes to increase taxes on cigarettes,” she added.

She’s also working to combat high suicide rates on reservations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian and Alaskan Native populations have the highest suicide rates of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. — 21.5 per 100,000. “There are a lack of psychiatrists and therapists” on reservations, Henderson said, adding that Black Hills has partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to begin a dialog. 

Henderson and Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund (third from right) pose with students after the event.
Henderson and Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund (third from right) pose with students after the event. (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Students at Yale are often very motivated to … take their education and give back in some way,” Salovey noted in his conversation with Dr. Henderson. “At graduation, we say ‘I admit you to all the rights and responsibilities’ [of a Yale degree], and our students have always taken that very seriously.”

Dr. Henderson recalled “many wonderful acts of people here at Yale,” which reinforced lessons about giving she learned throughout her lifetime and through Navajo teachings.

Asked what advice she had for Yale students interested in leading lives of service, Dr. Henderson encouraged them to look for any opportunities to give of themselves and their time. “Certainly being here at Yale you have had the opportunity to be schooled by world-famous faculty and that is a gift. Now you pass that on; you have to share that with others,” she said.

 “And do it with a good heart, otherwise you are going to totally miss the meaning behind giving.”

Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911