The making of a doctor and
a life full of meaning

Totem poles carry a lot of meaning in Tlingit culture. They can be ceremonial. They can be gifts. They can tell stories.
— Stephen Ellison, fourth-year medical student
Going Home

Stephen Ellison is only 31 years old, but you could say his story begins thousands of years ago among a handful of Alaska Native villages on Prince of Wales Island, located halfway between Seattle and Anchorage.

“My grandfather was full-blooded Tlingit, so his people have been here for thousands of years,” says Ellison, a fourth-year medical student from the village of Klawock. “As far back as storytelling goes, this has been the place of the Tlingit people.”

Many of those stories are carved into totem poles, and Ellison, apprenticed under a master carver, knows them well. But his own story took him by surprise.

You start off with a tree that has the right characteristics: straight, not a lot of knots, doesn’t twist. Cut it down. Then let it dry for a season.

Having come from a long line of commercial fishermen, Ellison assumed fishing would be his life’s work, and he enjoys tracking and catching salmon. But the more education he received, the hungrier he became for knowledge of all kinds.

By the time he graduated from college, he had his pilot’s license, boat captain’s license and a degree in mathematics. “Did I think I could be a doctor? No. Did I think I had what it took? No. But I was misinformed,” says Ellison. He notes that, in rural Alaska, there simply weren’t many doctors to talk to — let alone to serve as role models to kids and teens.

It wasn’t until the birth of his daughter, Bella, in Juneau, that he really began to pay attention to what doctors do. A year later, he called up family physician Taylor Dunn, M.D. ’99, the doctor who delivered Bella, to ask if he could shadow him.

“Quite often, people want to shadow for a little while so they can put it on their resume and move on,” says Dunn. “Stephen was different.”

For several years, twice a week, Ellison shadowed Dunn. He also followed physicians in the ER and in vascular surgery. Shadowing for this long, Ellison thinks, gave him an unfiltered view of what being a doctor in rural Alaska is really like, including dealing with difficult issues like substance use.

Dunn notes that his patients, half of whom are Alaska Native, had no problems opening up about their problems with Ellison in the room. In fact, he says, quite the opposite. Because Ellison is also Native, many of them felt more comfortable. Of course, it helps that Ellison is also a very attentive listener.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Stephen will make an excellent doctor. He has proven himself academically. He has the social skills. He has the technical skills. He has the focus and determination,” says Dunn.

One afternoon, the pair of them sat down with a two-year calendar and mapped out everything — all the prerequisites, the MCAT dates, the applications, the interviews — that Ellison would need to get into medical school. “I told him if he doesn’t make it this year, we’ll try again next year,” says Dunn.

For Ellison, having a mentor like Dunn made a huge difference. “I needed somebody to be like, ‘Yeah, you’ve got this. I’ll help walk you through the steps,’” he says.

You get a rough representation of the shape and how you want it to look. Usually, several people work on one totem pole. One person will work on one part of the totem pole, and someone else will work on another part.

While the birth of his daughter made Ellison realize he wanted to become a doctor, he believes the seed was planted much earlier, most likely with the death of his grandfather.

Ellison’s grandfather was stoic and loving. He taught Ellison everything he knew about surviving on the ocean. They were always together.

“He was someone I looked up to,” says Ellison. “To live through blatant racism, to become a successful commercial fisherman and mayor of a town, to raise a family and just be an upstanding human being — to me, that’s so inspirational.”

So it was devastating when Ellison, at 7, lost his grandfather to a heart attack. He couldn’t help but wonder: If the community had had more medical resources, would his grandfather have lived?

Fortunately, his Uncle George stepped in to fill the hole left by his grandfather’s passing. But when Ellison was 14 years old, his uncle received a late diagnosis of an aggressive form of lymphoma and passed away.

“I had some fairly profound experiences growing up here that really highlighted the need for healthcare providers in this kind of setting,” says Ellison. “It’s always been in the back of my mind.”

You chop big blocks off these logs with adzes. It’s very rhythmic — almost like a metronome — the way that you get into a flow. You’re looking, shaping, constantly re-evaluating. Toward the end, you’re using finer tools with finer blades to really smooth things out. Over the course of months, the totem takes shape.

Ellison remembers battling chronic sleep deprivation as he prepared for medical school. He was working 40 hours a week, taking a full load of prerequisites, volunteering and raising his daughter. And then there were the battles with self-doubt. Did he have enough experience? Enough volunteer hours? Was his personal statement good enough?

He applied to 10 schools, hoping to get into at least one. The UW School of Medicine was his last interview and his top choice, partially because the School’s five-state regional education program, called WWAMI, would allow him to stay in Alaska for part of his education.

The choice was clear, but he quickly realized that the hard work was just beginning. Now in his fourth year of medical school, Ellison says, he’s just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“You get through the first two years of medical school, through the bookwork, through step one of the board exams, into clinicals — you’re worried, you’re excited,” he says. “I’m no longer worried that every time my phone rings, it’s the School telling me that they made a mistake. I’m pretty sure that I’m meant to be here.”

What’s helped relieve the pressure of going to school — the financial pressure, at least — have been scholarships from the UW School of Medicine. The support has allowed him to choose a profession that aligns with his values. For Ellison, that means heading back to Alaska to pursue family medicine.

When you have as many totem poles as you want, people come together, and there’s Native song and dance and potlatches. Together, you raise the totem poles. You carry them. It’s human power. It’s all human power.

Ellison just graduated, and he achieved his goal: to be accepted by a family medicine residency program in Alaska — Anchorage, to be specific. That way, he can be closer to everything he loves: his daughter, the outdoors, his people. “I want my patients to have a healthcare provider who understands the challenges of living in rural Alaska, somebody they feel comfortable sharing important details with,” says Ellison.

His decision doesn’t surprise Jane Shelby, Ph.D., former assistant dean for WWAMI Alaska, in the least. “Students like Stephen are the future of medicine in Alaska because they have compassion and insight into the lives of our most vulnerable patients,” she says.

Ellison also feels strongly about giving back to the people and communities who have shaped and supported him along the way. So even though he never would have predicted that he would become a doctor, it’s likely that his story will continue where it began — in the village of Klawock.

“Klawock is always going to be here,” says Ellison. “I want to make sure I do my part to keep it going and keep it alive and well.”

By Eleanor Licata
Photos: Kollin O’Dannel


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