When she was a child receiving medical care at an Indian Health Service clinic in Fort Defiance, Arizona, Lacy Manuelito, M.D., MAS, knew she wanted to be a doctor.
“My mom was diligent about scheduling appointments ahead of time with the same pediatrician, so I was able to create a really close relationship with her,” she recalls. “Dr. Elizabeth Leister was a white woman who decided her family was going to live in Fort Defiance. She raised her kids there, had faith in our community and school system, and was an amazing pediatrician. She’s the reason I went into pediatrics.”
A member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Manuelito spent her childhood on the Navajo Nation, where her mother was employed. After completing degrees at Arizona State University and the University of New Mexico, Manuelito was preparing to apply to medical school, and vividly remembers the day she learned about Pre-Medical Admissions Pathway (P-MAP), an intensive medical school preparation program that every year accepts 10 promising students who have faced considerable obstacles on their paths to medical school. Students who successfully complete the program are guaranteed admission to the medical college.
“I was supposed to be studying for my anatomy and physiology test, and I was taking a break. The University of Arizona was a top choice for medical school, so I was exploring the website and saw the P-MAP program,” she says. “I read the description and was like, ‘This sounds perfect.’ The application was due later that week, so I was struggling to submit my application that Friday. Luckily, things came together.”
Her move to Tucson was just as frenzied as the P-MAP application process.
“I finished my finals in Albuquerque on Thursday, had to pack up my house on Friday and Saturday, and then drive to Tucson to have my first orientation on Sunday evening,” Manuelito recalls.
She says P-MAP equipped her with the tools she needed to succeed in medical school.
“The courses we took gave me a foundation to build on in med school. It was much harder than undergrad, but nowhere near what med school was going to be,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine doing med school without P-MAP.”
After receiving her medical degree, Manuelito began her residency training in pediatrics through the College of Medicine – Tucson at Banner University Medical Center. It was her top choice.
“During my third-year clerkship, you could feel how much of a family the pediatric residents were. During my fourth year, when they remembered my name, I was like, ‘Whoa, you actually know me,’” she recalls. “When I was looking at residency programs, I was comparing everything to Tucson. ‘What does this program have that Tucson isn’t able to offer me?’ There just weren’t enough things to outweigh Tucson. I was very happy to stay here and I loved my time here.”
She was also pleased to remain in Tucson because it had become a second home. As a child, Manuelito spent her summers with family in Tucson and Phoenix. As an adult settling in Tucson with her husband and daughter, P-MAP staff helped with daycare and kindergarten recommendations. She was starting to put down roots. As she prepares to complete her residency training next month, she is strongly considering remaining in Tucson.
“My brother and sister are here. My parents are here,” she says. “My community is now in Tucson.”
Manuelito’s journey through medical school brought her back to Leister — not as a patient, but as a student and mentee. By that time, Leister had moved south to work at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, and during medical school and as a resident, Manuelito worked side by side with her former pediatrician to learn the craft.
“When I had my baby, she was my daughter’s pediatrician. I did all of my med school shadowing with her in the clinic and talked to her about my career,” she recalls. “In January I went back as a resident to work in the clinic with her again.”
Manuelito’s face lights up when she talks about the things she loves most about pediatrics.
“When I am able to see that fresh newborn, whose mom has no idea what she’s doing, that’s my favorite type of visit — being able to reassure the moms and help them with whatever issues they’re having,” she says. “I love to talk to them about different strategies that help with breastfeeding. I can go from that and then talk to the 10-year-old about healthy food choices, and help Mom figure out how to get him to eat more varied foods. It’s wonderful. I love it!”