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Sundance film highlights U of U Health program

This post originally appeared on the Good Notes blog. Listen to a podcast about the film on U Rising here

The path to becoming a great healer is rarely straightforward. Throughout her childhood, Jenna Murray, an Eastern Shoshone, spent time with her family on the Wind River Reservation. Murray knows how difficult it is for Native people to get health care. She wanted to create lasting change for her community.

Power of storytelling

A new documentary film produced by University of Utah Health captures Jenna’s journey to empowerment and reconnection with her roots. “dêtetsi vo’i oninjakan Winding Path” was created by acclaimed filmmakers Alexandra Lazarowich (Cree), Ross Kaufman and Robin Honan. This is the fourth film in the New Narratives in Health series.

It also has the distinction of being one of just 53 short films selected for the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. In total, more than 12,000 films were submitted.

U of U Health has been the health and wellness sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival for eight years. For four years, the New Narratives in Health series has promoted powerful individual stories and innovations in health care.

These films are possible due to generous contributions from the Kahlert Foundation. They allow us to shed light on ongoing issues, like the health disparities faced by Native communities and our commitment as a health system to solve them.

The added attention from Sundance underscores the importance of our mission to support the growth of Native American students as researchers, medical professionals and leaders.

Preventing health disparities

Native Americans face the greatest health disparities of any minority group in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Native populations had higher vaccination rates than other groups. Despite this, they suffered some of the worst death rates.

Cultural and geographical separation often leave Native populations overlooked. This makes it hard, if not impossible, for Native people to receive care for even simple health concerns—let alone major ones.

Health issues like cancer, substance abuse and diabetes are all too common in native communities. And they often go untreated. Years ago, U of U Health made a promise to tribal leaders to fight health disparities. To uphold this promise, we empower Native people like Jenna to improve health care for their communities.

Empowered to improve life in Native communities

The Native American Research Internship (NARI) at the University of Utah is one of the only Native-focused research internships in the United States. Its goal is to create paths for Native students to pursue careers in biomedical science. We seek out Native voices and support their personal and professional growth.

With so few universities reaching out to them, it’s no surprise that Native students feel disconnected from institutions. But when they are heard and supported, they take the initiative to pursue careers in medicine.

Ultimately, we hope that they use what they learn to improve life for people like themselves: as doctors, researchers and policymakers.

When students participate in NARI, they bring their cultures, stories and experiences with them. They form a tight-knit community of peers and mentors. Great minds meet, share ideas and bond. People form lifelong personal and professional relationships.

For Murray, NARI was pivotal in becoming a physician and researcher. “Everything that I’ve been able to accomplish is because I have so much support,” Murray said. Supported by a strong community of peers and mentors, she pursued her goal.

Murray originally participated in NARI in 2015 and 2016. Today, she is in the second year of an M.D.-Ph.D. program at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah. Her research deals with the science of substance use and recovery. She hopes to use her work to improve life in Native communities.

Desire to give back

A crucial aspect of NARI is mentorship. Our research mentors generously volunteer countless hours of their time to students. They guide students, sharing their research and resources to help them grow.

We’re impressed by the number of faculty across U of U Health who want to give their time to mentoring NARI interns. The desire to do good is infectious.

NARI administrators also act as mentors. Every NARI program coordinator has been Native, and everyone has been a graduate of the program. There is a real sense of community here, and we try to reflect that in every aspect of what we do.

Broader reach, greater impact

“dêtetsi vo’i oninjakan Winding Path” gave Murray an opportunity to speak out about her own challenges. These issues are not unique to her. They are experienced by Native people everywhere. It matters to us that they have the chance to share their stories. And in turn, their stories will make a huge difference to the future of health care for Native people.

NARI receives funding from the National Institutes of Health. Maintaining these grants takes a tremendous amount of work. The effort to keep this program running is nonstop. Seeing Jenna’s story spotlighted at the Sundance Film Festival is a heartfelt reminder that our work is important. We’re thankful for the university’s support and excited to share our mission with the world.