Transitioning from the military to the US Public Health Service (USPHS) turned out to be a natural and fulfilling career move for physical therapist Ana Pereira-Sandee. Today, Pereira-Sandee carries the rank of lieutenant in the USPHS Commissioned Corps and thoroughly enjoys practicing with the Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that is the primary health care provider for nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Pereira-Sandee was born in Brazil but her family immigrated to the United States and settled in New Jersey when she was 10 years old. She credits the move as critical to her career choice. “I think the whole experience of changing directions, coming from a different background, the desire to be part of something bigger — it just comes from within.”
What was within Pereira-Sandee was a determination to do something different with her life. She enlisted in the US Air Force Reserve in May of 2001 while attending college. As graduation approached, Pereira-Sandee had hoped to remain in the military, but when those plans fell through, several coworkers suggested she look into joining the USPHS Commissioned Corps. She did her research and was pleased to learn that she could join the Commissioned Corps and continue her military benefits as well as receive loan repayment support to pay off her educational debts. Coupled with other opportunities available through the Commissioned Corps, Pereira-Sandee decided to line up a summer rotation with an Apache Nation health care facility.
Pereira-Sandee credits the patients and staff there with her decision to practice among Native people with the IHS. “I was very fortunate to be around the people I worked with and to have the experiences that I had. The patients were so receptive and accepting of me,” she says. “When my nine-week rotation was over, I was stunned at how many of my patients came to say goodbye and wish me well. They had so warmed up to me that they brought me handmade beads and other gifts.” The experience was electrifying for her, so much so, she adds, “When I left there, I had my application to USPHS completed and was ready to work for the Indian Health Service.”
Today, as a commissioned officer with the USPHS, LT Pereira-Sandee lives on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, NM, and practices at the Northern Navajo Medical Center, an ultra-modern facility that averages 400 outpatient visits per day and has 55 inpatient beds. She spends her off-duty hours enjoying the myriad of outdoor activities the local area offers. But the match among her personal and professional values, the USPHS and Indian health program missions and her appreciative patients is where she finds her greatest sense of fulfillment.
Pereira-Sandee is clear about her future plans. In the time that she has practiced with the Native patient population, not only has she won their hearts — they have clearly won hers. “They thank me for taking care of their people,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to work with any other population.”
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