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Becoming a doctor isn’t easy.

Not only do prospective students have to endure a grueling and difficult education process, but also they have to work tirelessly during residency.

Knowing that, Alex Kivimaki still pursued the career, concluding it was the right thing for him.

Alex graduated from UW-Madison Medical School on May 11. The medical school held a ceremony that morning for the students, and then had a ceremony for family that afternoon at the Kohl Center.

He now is heading for the Seattle area to work for his residency. He left Madison on June 4 and started in Seattle on June 12.
“To call me doctor – it hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said.

Alex grew up in the Warrens area and went to elementary school in Wyeville, then middle and high school in Tomah. He is the son of Verdie and Tim Kivimaki.

It will be three years before he can practice medicine on his own, having to be an intern at a hospital and clinic system.

“It is crazy, but I like it. I embrace the situation,” he said.

As a young boy, he had plans to become a herpetologist, studying cold-blooded creatures such as lizards, snakes, and turtles. Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter,” was his hero.

However, later, somehow medical research became more prominent in his life, so Alex began his undergraduate work at University of Wisconsin – Madison. In the course of his study, Alex participated in a research internship for two summers in Salt Lake City.

“It was a good learning experience but, in the process, I changed my mind,” he said. “I was mostly working with mice and not having personal interactions is not for me. I presented a few times at conferences and spent some time with my research in the hospital. It was in the hospital where I understood that a career in medicine is the right direction for my life.”

Desiring more contact with people and liking the doctor-patient relationship, he changed to biochemistry, which prepared him better for the admissions test of medical school, the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

It was the communication, the personal interaction, which he craved.

“Then I told myself, ‘Well, now I have to go to medical school,’” he said.

Part of his decision involved his desire to help people, along with the aspect of solving puzzles – trying to figure out the correct diagnosis for each person.

“I like to keep busy. I get bored pretty easily.”

Alex graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry, and then took the MCAT test.

“It isn’t a pass or fail test, but rather a test to assess the student’s medical knowledge relative to other applicants,” he said. “Juniors and seniors take the test when they apply for medical school, and then interview for the school their senior year.”

With all the stress of studying such a complicated and intense subject, then practicing medicine that often entails life or death decisions, people in the medical field develop a very animated, and often odd, sense of humor to deal with the stress and lighten the mood.

“I was blowing soap bubbles throughout the library when students were studying for the medical exam,” he said. “Bubbles were flying everywhere and there I was, with a bubble wand, blowing them throughout the library.”

Alex applied to medical schools in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, North Dakota, and Minnesota. He decided Madison was the best choice for him.

“I couldn’t leave Madison,” Alex said. “It’s going to be difficult to leave now that I’m going to Seattle. I’ve been in Madison for eight years and enjoyed every minute of it. Madison has been good to me.”

Getting through medical school was not easy.

“It was a little tough at times – and stressful, but I did enjoy it. It was like a roller coaster. I did have a great support system,” he said. To help him get through medical school, he used the support of the Native American Center for Health Professionals on campus.

“It’s a great program for family and the community. They often have family dinners and get-togethers. It’s a great support system.”

The Ho-Chunk Nation Education Department also helped him with schooling arrangements and assistance, in addition, he received scholarships to help pay tuition.

During medical school, the first two years were theory, classroom-type education, which involved reading, studying and tests. He was shocked during the first two years with the quantity of what he needed to learn. It was step one of passing the boards. After that, it clicked. Practical learning was a better experience, he said.

The second two years had applications that were more practical. He worked clinics in La Crosse, Milwaukee, the Oneida Tribal Clinic, Marshfield, and at the House of Wellness Clinic with Dr. Amy DeLong.

“It was a quality learning experience,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”

He learned in the classroom what psychotropic drugs would do for people, but it wasn’t until he working in the psychiatric ward in Milwaukee that he understood and had a full appreciation for what they did for people.

Having gone through all that time, work, and dedication to become a doctor, he still has to think about what he accomplished.
“To finally reach the process – it is all rather surreal, but it will all come together when my pager goes off, notifying I am needed for a patient,” he said.

Alex plans to establish his practice in family medicine, which requires three years of residency.

He thought about becoming a pediatrician but then changed his mind because he likes to work with people of all ages. He has a special fondness for elderly people and the stories they have to tell.

“That’s what sealed it for me,” he said. “I love talking with people. It keeps you fresh.”

He will be working for Swedish Cherry Hill Family Medicine, which encompasses several hospitals and clinics in the Seattle area. He will be living in an apartment by the hospital so he can be closer to his work site.

The Seattle Indian Health Board has a clinic, which he will work with, in addition to the other medical facilities on his rotation.
“Seeing everything come together is exciting. I enjoy change. It’s going to be a fun time,” he said.

“I do love the area. I have a high school friend who lives in the area, and another medical school classmate in the same program,” Alex said.

Native health has been a priority when looking at the programs.

“Medical care for Native Americans has been at the bottom of the statistic, improving, but can get better,” Alex said. He plans to come back to Wisconsin eventually. “I’m going to work with native health for sure. It’s just a matter of where and when.”

During the next three years, Alex will have good times and bad, difficult times and times of jubilation. He likes to keep everything in perspective and know that he will be doing it for the benefit of his patients.

“Having a good attitude makes it easier. It helps quite a bit along the way,” Alex said. “Working with the patients is what really matters.”

Written by Ken Luchterhand

Ken Luchterhand is a reporter for Hocak Worak, the newspaper of the Ho Chunk Nation.

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