Grounded by family
Stories of Indigenous Mixtec ancestors help med student persevere in college
As a young child, first-year medical student Gianna Nino-Tapias frequently suffered from tonsillitis. Her mother called from their home in Oregon to Oaxaca, Mexico, to ask her own mother how to treat it. “Grill some tomatillos and add herbs,” Nino-Tapias’ grandmother said. “Place the mixture in a satchel and tie it around her neck. Have her sleep with it.”
The remedy didn’t help, so Nino-Tapias’ mother took her to a medical doctor. He recommended a tonsillectomy, but her mother refused. She mentioned the therapy she had tried, a tradition from her Indigenous Mixtec community.
“He was very dismissive. He mocked what she had done to try to cure me,” Nino-Tapias said, adding that it caused her to think about medicine as a career.
Pride in her Indigenous identity not only sparked Nino-Tapias’ path to medical school but it also carried her through rough spots in college. One day, she hopes, it will inform her care of other Indigenous people.
The oldest of four children, Nino-Tapias was born in eastern Oregon, where her mother harvested crops. After Nino-Tapias’ sophomore year in high school, the family moved to a larger town in Washington, where she received help applying to college and was accepted to Stanford.
But in the scramble to satisfy her graduation requirements after transferring, she missed out on chemistry. She failed her first go at the subject in college and abandoned her plans for medical school.
“It almost destroyed me,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t belong, that I had gotten into Stanford by accident.”
Changing her career goal to public health, she traveled as part of a school program to Oaxaca, land of the Mixtec. They call themselves Ñuu Savi, people of the rain. “I went home. I learned where I was from, and that grounded me,” she said.
She visited her maternal grandmother, who never learned to read, grew up without running water and electricity, and wove palm leaves into baskets to sell. “I thought about all these women who came before me, and what they had to do to sustain their families,” Nino-Tapias said.
“My challenges in trying to get into medical school were very different but in some ways very similar,” she added. “I learned I needed to find that tenacity, that persistence.”
Deciding that she wanted to have a more direct impact on health, she took chemistry again and, she said, “I did fine.”
She joined Stanford’s Natives into Medicine club and met Indigenous medical students who helped guide her through her undergraduate years. “They were amazing mentors,” Nino-Tapias said. “They taught me that I could pursue medicine as a career and not feel discouraged by an experience of failure.”
Last summer, Nino-Tapias found that a setback can lead to a windfall: Out of work because of the pandemic, she returned to Washington to pick blueberries alongside her mother. A tweet she sent out about farmworkers’ low pay went viral and, for a few weeks before school started, she became something of a celebrity, prompting donations to help her pay for medical school.
Now, as she delves into anatomy, biochemistry and physiology, Nino-Tapias reflects on the fact that her tonsillitis cleared up after a traditional healer rubbed an egg over her body and steamed herbs for her to inhale. She doesn’t know why she stopped suffering from bouts of fever and sore throat.
Regardless, she has resolved that she will respect the beliefs of her patients who turn to folk remedies. “I think the best way to serve them is to incorporate medicine with traditional healing,” she said.