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The trust in care

By Katy Nesbitt

As valedictorian of his high school, Mitchel Ornelas, ’13, had his pick of Oregon colleges to attend on a full-ride scholarship. He chose EOU.

Now a doctor, he is drawing on his experience at EOU and his own upbringing in his work with underserved and Indigenous people in Seattle.

He played football for the Mountaineers, but quit the team after a year to focus on academics and the cultural organizations in which he became involved.

With close family ties to the Umatilla Tribe, Ornelas was exposed to traditional foods, sweat lodge ceremonies and powwows during visits to Eastern Oregon. At EOU, he was drawn to the Pacific Island Heritage Club’s multicultural luau that featured dances and performances—traditions that rang true to him. He later discovered his father was from Southeast Asia. 

“I met a lot of people at Eastern and was introduced to island culture—something brought me to them,” Ornelas said. “I realized this is my culture and I was meant to find my identity.”

His interest in heritage culture led Ornelas into activism. He attended leadership conferences focused on racial equality. In medical school, all of his experiences with culture and race paved the way to where he is now: a doctor of osteopathic medicine working for Swedish Health Services in Seattle with Alaskan natives and other Indigenous people.

Ornelas also credited cultural influences with his decision to practice osteopathic medicine, which focuses on muscular and skeletal systems.

“It really ties in well with mind, body and spirit,” Ornelas said.

After a year in the classroom, Ornelas spent three years training at community health centers, including one in Oahu, where he learned about yet another culture. The Hawaiian healers, who practiced in the room above Ornelas, sussed similar hands-on treatment as the osteopathic students learned and used plant and herbal treatments. The comprehensive health center also provided a place where families could work through social issues.

In Hawaii, he also met medical providers with a bent for social justice. Ornelas said when he learned about the residency program at Swedish, he took the opportunity to come back to the Northwest to practice family medicine with Indigenous people, many of whom struggle economically.

As a resident entering a new career, he witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic putting even more pressure on traditionally marginalized communities. Ornelas said he serves people who are homeless, and most methods of treating patients from a safe distance, like tele-health, aren’t available to people without a smartphone, computer or tablet.

“A lot of the people I serve don’t have a phone or other electronics and that’s a barrier,” Ornelas said.

So is not having an address to receive letters from a healthcare provider. Sometimes one of the resources a patient may receive is a phone so they can make and keep appointments and communicate with clinics and hospitals.

“I think the COVID pandemic highlights what the barriers are in the population I serve,” Ornelas said. “People suffering from historical trauma find it tough to find providers they trust. Organizations like ours are trying to break down those barriers.”

To gain trust providers need to understand their patients’ culture. Swedish offers both Western Medicine and traditional American Indian medicine, Ornelas said.

“Trust allows a relationship to develop,” Ornelas said. “Then we can work to avoid heart attacks and cardiac disease or focus on healthy pregnancies.”