Native Hawaiian Healer in Training, Ashley Lee Receives Public Health Award

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Every step of Ashley Mainani Lee's medical school journey has been toward one goal—restoring the health of Native Hawaiians. 

 "When Captain Cook came over, his sailors wrote in their journals that Native Hawaiians were above middle-sized, strong, and well made. And today, sadly, it’s not what people think of Native Hawaiians and their health status," Lee said. 

As a future Native Hawaiian physician, Lee recognizes the responsibility it carries within the community. 

"It's really important to me, and I think it goes back to cultural sensitivity, resilience, and historical trauma," she said. "It's recalling everything that happened and why Native Hawaiians are in the health state they are today. For me, it's trying to restore them to their original state of health through traditional Hawaiian diet, bringing them back to our culture, through ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, and figuring out how we can incorporate those things into medical education and practice."

ashley and parents

Ashley and her parents, Lloyd Lee and Kanani Akina-Lee

Her inspiration stems from her Keʻanae, Maui roots where her tutuman Enos Akina was both a lāʻau lapaʻau practitioner and Kalo farmer, understanding the importance of Hawaiian identity in health.

Lee was the president of JABSOM's Ka Lama Kukui Indigenous Health Interest Group. 

Her research is about incorporating ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi into medical education. 

She was the hula chair for multiple events on campus and is an avid mentor of the Pū Paʻakai tiered mentoring program that connects Native Hawaiian pre-medical students with medical students. 

She shares her love of Native Hawaiian culture and health at conferences worldwide, such as PRIDOC, the Pacific Regions Indigenous Doctors Congress. 

When the tragic wildfires engulfed Lahaina and other areas on Maui, Lee was one of the first medical responders. She brought her skills beyond the hospitals and clinics. Partnering with Maui Medic Healers Hui, she was a trusted and friendly face who went into the community to provide care. This grassroots approach created a culturally sensitive space where residents were more open to addressing their acute mental and physical trauma.

These were just some of the reasons JABSOM nominated Lee for the US Public Health Service Physician Professional Advisory Committee Excellence in Public Health Award. She accepted the award at the annual JABSOM Awards Ceremony.

"My class of about 80 people only has eight Native Hawaiians," Lee said. "To be nominated for this prestigious award means a lot, especially to be recognized for my work in the Native Hawaiian community. It's reassuring to know that that kind of work is important at JABSOM."

The third year of medical school is devoted to rotations, where students gain experience in different specialties. Lee is leaning toward OBGYN.

"There's a lot of increased maternal mortality rates, especially among Native Hawaiians," Lee said.  "There's a lot of controversy on Native Hawaiian birth practices and midwifery.  I'm trying to educate myself on those facets and perhaps incorporate some of those practices to make people more comfortable."