Chad Blair: This is a Civil Beat Podcast and I am Chad Blair.
Dr. Sheldon Riklon lives on Oahu and he’s actually one of only two Marshallese MDs in the entire state of Hawaii.
And yes, you can actually be both Micronesian and a physician, despite what some of his patients might seem to believe. A glass ceiling that some Micronesians seem to have accepted as well.
Sheldon Riklon: “Filipino?” “No”
“OK I give up, where are you from?” “Micronesia — Marshall Islands.”
“But you are a doctor.”
That’s the piece that usually gets me all the time. The expectations of many of my patients who are not Micronesians — I must be from somewhere else but Micronesia because I am a medical physician in the States. There’s a misunderstanding among a lot of the folks. When I travel to the mainland they think I’m Mexican. I go to Pali Momi or some of the hospitals they think I’m Filipino. I’m used to that.
And then I have to tell them: “Google it. Look for Micronesia.” And most of them are like: “Really? You’re from there? But you’re not one of them, you know, you’re a special case because you became a doctor.”
But really is not, it’s just that I became a doctor and not everybody else did. They are doing other stuff.
So when I traveled to Arkansas one time — I’ve gone there a couple of times. One time in November, it was cold. First time I had that frost thing on the windshield.
“OK I’m going to wash this off”
They were like: “No no no, you don’t put water on there. Just turn off the heat.”
I’m like: “Okay”
And then I went there also back in April or May of this year by invitation by one of the University of Arkansas medical sciences programs. So I got to meet a lot of the folks there and at one of the meetings, a lot of the pastors, they estimated between seven, sometimes they even estimated up to 14,000, Marshallese maybe in Arkansas.
We have a group of Marshallese pastors who actually come and work with the university, reaching the community, doing different works with diabetes, in terms of medications, coming to the clinics, doing their own gardening, doing their own exercise programs and a lot of other stuff.
They asked me if I can go on a Saturday and speak with a group of young people from their churches. So I did, I went that Saturday and I was very surprised, they filled a gym, over 60 young kids in high school, Marshallese kids. And it’s a Saturday — most kids are out there playing, right? And they are actually at that church, there to listen to me talk.
So when I got up and introduced myself, I told them where I was born, I could hear there was a murmuring in the crowd, like: “Really? You’re from Ebeye?”
All of the kids were — some of the questions that they asked me were very thought-provoking questions. And you can tell that they want to succeed. Because they were asking: “You know, that’s great, we really want to do that but the thing is we do not have anybody that can help mentor us along the way.”
And some of their questions were: “Did you ever think of giving up?”
I said: “Oh multiple times. Especially when I went through my biochemistry class. Oh yes, but I am human just like you. But I do stop and pray and put my head into it and continue on.”
And it was really good to kind of see — you know when they say you see that sparkle in somebody’s eye. I could see it in some of them. Even after the program they would come to me and say: “You know what, we really need some guidance. We need somebody to kind of help us, tell us where we need to go”
But they were just like me and I could see myself in them — in that they wanted to succeed. They want to do something bigger. And I thought that was special, just knowing that my story would at least touch them, would at least encourage them to continue on. And some of them actually have gone and applied for nursing programs, and some of them actually are thinking of going into certain fields of the health field, which was great for me.
So applying that here in Hawaii, I teach medical students at the medical school, I still teach residents. So for them to also see me and knowing that I am Micronesian, that also kind of opens their eyes. So when we go and we do our free homeless clinics, at the Waianae shelter or the IHS or such, they come across Micronesians — all the time — and they try to reach them, they try to, you know, treat them, they try to understand what the culture is.
But the medical school here is a special medical school compared to a lot of the other medical schools — actually learning about Micronesians is part of the curriculum. Some of the cases have to do with somebody from Ebeye or from Chuuk and some of the struggles they have in terms of getting resources.
So my time in Hawaii, and actually I keep calculating this and I try not to calculate it because then it reminds me how old I am. But I’ve spent half my life in Hawaii after coming from the Marshall Islands to go to school, going through the training and coming back here. I’ve always considered myself as an Hawaiian — as a local boy. Because I consider myself as an islander as well.
So that’s my story.
Blair: For more on Micronesia and the exodus of people from their island home,s read our series at CivilBeat.com.
This Civil Beat podcast was produced by Chrystele Bossu-Ragis.