Healing Disease and Divisions: Jacob Weasel, MD, General SurgeonMay 20, 2021 12:00PM ● By Med Magazine
By Alex Strauss
Long before Jacob Weasel became the first Lakota surgeon to work in Rapid City, he was already distinguishing himself in healthcare.
As a 17-year-old high school student in Omaha, Weasel won a place in a diversity summer research program for underrepresented minorities through Creighton University. The opportunity led to a national award for his biomedical research and the chance to present on it in Miami. Just as importantly, it allowed him to form relationships at Creighton, where he would eventually study theology and health administration and policy.
When Weasel went on to medical school at the University of Nebraska, it was the realization of a dream he had had since before that first research experience.
"At 16, I told my girlfriend that I was going to go to medical school to become a surgeon," Dr. Weasel told MED. "When I wrote my personal statements, I always said that my goal was to have a significant impact on Native American healthcare. That is what really started the whole journey for me."
Called to Serve
An enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Weasel is the child of a Lakota mother from South Dakota. His father, a Nakoda Indian, grew up on Montana's Belknap Indian Reservation, where he dropped out of school and struggled with substance abuse before attending Bible College to become a pastor. Weasel spent his early years in Albuquerque, New Mexico before the family relocated to Omaha when he was 12.
"I was about 13 when my dad came to me and said 'You better do well in school because we can't afford to send you to college'," Weasel recalls. "That was really motivating for me."
During his general surgery residency in Des Moines, Weasel began to search for a position that would allow him to practice the advanced surgical techniques he had learned and simultaneously support the health of native people.
"That proved to be a difficult thing," says Dr. Weasel. At first glance, the Indian Health Service might seem like an obvious choice. But Weasel worried that the limited resources of the IHS could keep him from serving fully. "Those resource limitations would have really limited my ability to practice at the highest level of my professional training," he says.
Monument Health Rapid City Hospital, with its large population of Native American patients and it's advanced medical facilities, was the perfect solution. Dr. Weasel, his wife, and three children moved to Rapid City in 2018 at the end of his residency.
As a general surgeon, Dr. Weasel performs a variety of minimally-invasive robotic and standard surgeries, including thyroid and parathyroid, gallbladder removal, thoracic, breast, hernia repair, gastrointestinal and bariatric. He says his Native American roots have often helped him bridge the gap between reticent native patients and the medical care they need.
"I can't tell you the number of times that I've had situations in the hospital where understanding where patients are coming from and what they are going through has been so helpful," says Dr. Weasel. "Most of my patients know that I'm native and that I'm Lakota. At first, they are surprised and then there is this comfort level. People open up to you in a way that they might not with other healthcare providers and I've been able to help restore trust in the healthcare system."
And Dr. Weasel's commitment to effect positive change in the region and the state does not stop at the OR doors.
"Another thing that drew me to this area is the opportunity to look at things that affect our health outside of clinics and hospitals," he says. "I would like to someday do research on the impact of incorporating ancestral dietary practices back into Native American communities to see what effect that might have on things like heart disease and diabetes."
Education is another avenue through which Dr. Weasel is influencing and inspiring others. As the newly-appointed Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at USD Sanford School of Medicine, he hopes to expose more medical students to underserved populations through opportunities like a rotation at the tribally-owned Oyate Health Center in Rapid City.
"It is a very different practice environment there," says Dr. Weasel. "You have to do more with less sometimes, so you have to depend a lot on your clinical acumen."
Weasel says working in a clinic like Oyate will also help open medical students' eyes to other forms of medicine. "There is a rich tradition of native medicine that they don't get exposed to," says Weasel. "There needs to be an appreciation for that which is still practiced but is largely unknown. This will help inform them as providers and allow them to understand and appreciate the cultural diversity of their patients."
Like many minorities, Weasel has had plenty of personal experience with racism. But instead of lashing out, he leans into the unique perspective that medicine gives him.
"You can't blame a blind person for being blind. All you can do is open their eyes," he says. "As a surgeon, I get to recognize the fact that the things that separate us are only millimeters deep. This extends beyond the physical to almost every aspect of our lives and it is a message that is not being told enough in this country."
Dr. Weasel, who says he sees himself as a healer on many levels, has made it his mission to spread that message. Through his work, his community involvement, and his example, he hopes to inspire other minority children to pursue their big dreams, too.
"It's hard for many young people to do that right now, given all of the challenges they face," says Dr. Weasel. "Part of what I want to do is to serve as an example for future generations. I want to inspire a sense of hope that they, too, have the ability to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever they want to be. There are too few examples for native kids right now."