Dr. Bret Benally Thompson
White Earth Ojibwe
Clinical Assistant Professor
University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health
Bret tells his grandfather he’d like to be a doctor. His grandfather replies, “You’re too stupid to be a doctor.” To this day Bret is unsure why his loving grandfather would respond in such a manner. In hindsight, Bret thinks it is because they had never heard of anyone from the reservation becoming a physician.
Bret graduates from high school with poor grades. Bret periodically takes college and community college courses through his 20s, withdrawing from as many classes as he completes, while as he works a series of jobs, including military service as an Army officer, and as a deputy sheriff in Houston, then Austin, Texas.
While working as a deputy sheriff in Austin, Bret is driving his patrol car, when he realizes he needs to be a doctor: “I actually had this striking thought that came to me, and it was like a bolt of lightning kind of thing, almost like somebody else was telling me, ‘You really can be a doctor. Not here: these are not your people. You need to go back home and do this for your people.’ I decided right then that’s what I was going to be—a doctor.”
Before going back to school he worked as an EMT on a rural ambulance service and in a clinic in Breckenridge, Colorado, as well as a member of a mountain search and rescue team. It was these jobs that convinced him of his love for medicine. During these years as an EMT, one of the doctors he worked with became his mentor, sharing with him the rewards and the difficulties of being a doctor. From these experiences both in police work and as an EMT, he knew he enjoyed serving others and he found medicine fascinating.
Armed with this knowledge and enthusiasm, Bret returns to college. Bret is able to carry a 3.75 average: “I still doubted myself every once in a while. I remember telling my elders, ‘This is too hard.’ They said, ‘No, we need you.’ How could I say no to that?” He stayed focused, studied hard, remembered his elders words, and believed in himself, continuing to achieve the grades that allowed him to apply to medical school.
Bret sets his sights on the University of Minnesota Duluth because of the strong support they have there for Native American medical students, as well as being a top school in rural and family medicine. On one of his visits as a pre-medical student, he meets Dr. Jerry Hill, a Native physician. “Dr. Hill gave me permission to be a medical student. He said, ‘You are going to be one of the few Native American physicians.'”
Bret begins medical school in Duluth. During these stressful years, he receives support from his community and mentors. After Bret completes his residency in Family Medicine in Alaska, he decides to do an additional year of residency in Hospice and Palliative Care, a newfound passion.
Bret begins working at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, where he both cares for patients and mentors young doctors. When Bret sees that same spark in a student’s eyes that Dr. Hill saw in his, he encourages them in the same way. “You can achieve your dream, if you are willing to work hard and not give up. If I can do it, so can you.”