In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

January 31, 2019

Medical Director of Native American Programs Was ‘Meant to be a Healer’

By In the Loop

Dr. Judith Kaur has spent her career improving the lives and health of American Indians, especially when it comes to the early detection and treatment of cancer.


Judith Kaur, M.D., is living the life her grandmother knew she would. As the Florida Times-Union reports, it was her grandmother who, when Dr. Kaur was just 5 years old, looked at her and told her she was "meant to be a healer."

At age 5, Dr. Kaur "didn't really know what that meant," but as the years went on, the paper reports, "the words from her grandmother, a member of the Choctaw Nation, stuck with her." While attending community college "a professor told her she should go to medical school," the paper reports. Instead she earned a degree in education and went on to teach science to junior high and high school students.

Her grandmother's words were still with her when, as a 30-year-old wife and mother, she applied to medical school "at the urging of her husband," according to the Times-Union. She was accepted into the Indians in Medicine program at the University of North Dakota and completed her medical degree at the University of Colorado.

Since then, Dr. Kaur, medical director of Native American programs for Mayo Clinic's Cancer Center, has focused on "improving health outcomes for American Indians, helping train native physicians and raising awareness of various health issues in often under-served communities, on reservations, in cities, and in the wilds of Alaska," the paper reports. Especially when it comes to early detection and treatment of cancer. "For a long time native people were told that Indians don't get cancer," Dr. Kaur tells the Times-Union. "We get alcoholism, we get child abuse, we get this, we get that, but we don't get cancer. There's a misconception that it's a white person's disease."

It's not, of course, and Dr. Kaur has devoted her life to educating American Indians on the signs, symptoms and risks of cancer, having once gone so far, the paper reports, as "going to bingo nights in North Dakota to talk to women about the importance of getting pap smears."

It's that lifelong drive and compassion for others that the paper reports has propelled Dr. Kaur to becoming a nationally recognized cancer expert, along with "one of just five doctors" to be awarded Mayo Clinic's Distinguished Alumni Award in 2018.

Dr. Kaur tells the paper her quest is to bring better health care, and better health care education, to all American Indians. "I think the fact that there is more attention to the problem, and that there are new leaders coming up that I've helped train" is making a difference, she says. "The federal government hasn't changed much, in terms of honoring its obligations to Native people and the treaties — but I do think there has been some impact."

Thanks in no small part, we're sure, to the seed of healing her grandmother planted all those years ago.

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Tags: Dr Judith Kaur, Employee Stories, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic in Florida, Native American Programs

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