A family tradition
Four Stenehjem women have strong ties to UND Medicine
Kristen Stenehjem remembers hearing legendary stories about her great grandfather, the only family physician in McKenzie County during the Great Depression. He was known for his dedication to patients and for using a sleigh in the winter to reach patients during smallpox and flu outbreaks.
Those stories and her hometown physician in Watford City inspired her to enter medical school.
Today, four Stenehjem women – all cousins – are, or will be, graduates of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.
Kristen Stenehjem is a second-year medical student who just completed a prestigious fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Brynn Stenehjem is a first-year resident at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. McKayla Stenehjem is a third-year resident at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. And Amy Stenehjem-Kelsch earned her medical degree from UND in 2000 and owns a consulting business helping people navigate the health care system.
Besides their names and affinity for medicine, they share a great appreciation for the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.
Kristen Stenehjem, who grew up in Watford City, credits UND’s patient-centered learning curriculum for her fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“I had heard that the Sloan Kettering internships were very competitive,” Kristen said. “I applied but didn’t tell my family in case I didn’t get in.” She was the only student from the Midwest who was accepted for one of 20 spots.
“Everyone else was from Ivy League schools and the East Coast,” she said. “I proved myself by working harder and going in early and staying late. It’s that North Dakota work ethic.” It paid off: Kristen was asked back next summer.
She worked in pediatric oncology, working with adults who had childhood leukemia and looking at the long-term effects they experienced.
“We found that survivors are more likely to be obese or overweight, and to develop cardiometabolic diseases, including diabetes,” Kristen said. “We wanted to find out why, and to implement diet and exercise programs to help survivors lose weight and prevent diseases. It was a great experience.”
“I had worked with patients before, while many of the other medical students hadn’t,” Kristen said. “The training in patient-centered learning at UND really helped. We study patients, not just books. We look at how patients are affected physically, mentally, and we meet with patients. This really helped me with my internship.”
Brynn Stenehjem also credits the patient-centered learning curriculum for her great experience as a first-year resident at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
“UND absolutely prepared me well,” said Brynn, who grew up in Ulen, Minn., about 40 miles from Fargo. “When I interviewed for my residency, I could show how much experience I had working in teams and with hands-on patient care. I had more experience than a lot of students from big-name medical schools.”
“The patient-centered learning curriculum paid off,” Brynn said. “I realized later how much those communication-based third and fourth years helped me get to know patients. That connection with people is a North Dakota thing that carries into medicine.”
Communication with patients and their families is so rewarding, said McKayla Stenehjem about her residency, now in its third year, at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.
McKayla grew up in Bismarck and Fargo, and earned her undergraduate degree in biology from UND before attending medical school. She said her UND education prepared her well for her residency, and her third and fourth year clinicals at the Minot Center for Family Medicine, part of the UNDSMHS.
“I love working with kids,” said McKayla. “It’s a lot of fun. And it’s so rewarding to have families reach out to me after I’ve taken care of their children. Hearing about the impact I may have had is rewarding.”
“UND was my first choice,” said Amy Stenehjem-Kelsch, who graduated from UNDSMHS in 2000 and from her residency in 2004 from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where she was chief resident. She grew up in Williston.
“UND medical school was a fantastic experience, with superb training,” said Amy. “I felt as well trained, if not better, than residents all over the U.S.”
After medical residency, Amy and her husband, Chad Kelsch, a UND Law alum, moved to the Twin Cities where she worked as a staff physician at Park Nicollet Clinic and later Physicians’ Diagnostics & Rehabilitation.
After being diagnosed with a chronic health issue, she was unable to practice medicine and began working as a consultant who helps people with chronic health issues navigate the health care system.
“I miss practicing, but can work from home and still interact with patients,” she said.
Carrying the tradition
In their own ways, the Stenehjems are carrying on a new tradition.
And the School of Medicine & Health Sciences has given them the tools to do so.
“North Dakota faces unique medical challenges,” said Kristen. For example, Watford City has just one hometown doctor and a small hospital. I want to find ways to help rural communities get better access to care.”
Her experience at Sloan Kettering could help her do that.
“The most rewarding experience at Sloan Kettering was working with physicians who are the best in their fields. It was very collaborative, very focused on patients. That’s the type of environment I want to work in. It was what we are being taught in medical school: to focus on the patient, not the disease. UND is preparing physicians well.”