Scholarships make it possible for medical student to ‘Go and climb a ladder’ to success

Melissa Varner
March 11, 2022
Echo Buffalo

Echo Buffalo remembers sitting on a pillow between her mother’s legs each morning before the school bus came. She would try to keep still as her mother methodically brushed out the knots in her hair, then styled it into two braids, each with a bow on the end. Each morning, her mother would impart the same wisdom to Echo, cementing it in her memories.

“Shiyahzi,” she said, using a Navajo term of endearment, “Go my Echo, go and climb a ladder. Go my Echo, and get an education. Go my Echo, and make your people proud of you.”

“Go and climb a ladder,” is a reference to the Native American folk song “Go My Son.” The song itself was inspired by Navajo Chief Manuelito, who stressed the importance of education to his people. He is credited with saying, “My Navajo people, education is a ladder to happiness. Go and climb that ladder.”

Echo is just one of three Native American students in the MUSC College of Medicine’s 157-member Class of 2022. She is also one of 22 Black students in the class.

Both groups are underrepresented in the medical profession, with Blacks accounting for 5.4% of the nation’s physician workforce and Native Americans comprising just 1%. This is important because studies have shown that minorities are more likely to seek out medical care – especially preventive services – when they know their doctors are the same race.

“There’s a certain level of connection – a certain level of trust – that minorities have when they have a doctor that looks like them,” Echo said.

She remembers a few patients who were surprised to see a Black medical student. “I’d walk into the exam room, and they’d say, ‘Wow, it’s really nice to see you. I’ve never seen a Black person who wasn’t a nurse or on the checkout desk.’”

“That’s where some of my passion comes from,” Echo explained. “Growing up, I felt like I was in an area where I never saw a doctor.”

When she was 8, Echo’s mother returned to the Navajo reservation in Arizona, leaving her father to raise her and her three siblings alone in rural Manning, South Carolina. The town is in Clarendon County, one of the most medically underserved parts of the state. An area is considered medically underserved if there are too few primary care providers, a high number of infant deaths, high poverty or a high elderly population.

Echo saw higher education as her way out of the poverty her family faced. Throughout medical school, scholarships have made it possible for Echo to “go and climb a ladder.”

She is a recipient of the Jerry and Jenny Reves Diversity Scholarship, the MUSC Women’s Club Scholarship, the Thaddeus John Bell, MD Family Endowment Scholarship and the Charleston County Medical Society Alliance Scholarship. She is a two-time recipient of the College of Medicine Dean’s Award. Most recently, Echo was awarded the College of Medicine Dean’s Scholarship.

“Having that weight lifted off me has been tremendous because family medicine isn’t the highest paying specialty,” Echo said. “I feel more confident going into that field knowing that I don't have so much of a burden.”

She finds it motivating that MUSC has invested so much in her and is grateful to the donors who have it possible. After graduation, she’s headed to the University of Virginia School of Medicine for a residency in family medicine. Eventually, she wants to serve in a community that feels like home.

Match Day residents on stage in costume announcing their matches. 
Echo announces she matched to UVA, her first choice for her residency training. MUSC’s theme for Match Day 2022 was “Space: The next frontier.”

“MUSC has given me an opportunity to come full circle – to be able to treat people that remind me so much of my own family and my own community and the way that I grew up,” Echo said.

She also plans to pay it forward by helping others climb the ladder too. “I feel very grateful to have a voice and help inspire people who look like me to join this field.”