As a boy, Rich Brantner, PharmD’16, remembers scouring the freshly plowed fields around his boyhood home in southern Missouri and finding a trove of artifacts, little treasures of his Native American roots.
“We would find arrowheads and bone marbles, small tools,” said Brantner, who claims Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw heritage. “My grandparents and my father would be with me and they’d tell me what these things were, what purpose certain tools filled. Those artifacts were always around me growing up, they always interested me.”
Immersed in the lore from that early age, Brantner maintained a steady interest in all things Native American, studying the traditions and history of America’s indigenous populations.
Now 41 and fresh off his graduation from the Creighton University School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, Brantner finds himself in a position to answer a calling to aid a Native American community, the Ojibwa people of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as chief pharmacist in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
The outgoing chief pharmacist, Cynthia Pappan Gourneau, is also a Creighton alum, earning her Doctor of Pharmacy degree in 2005.
“That’s meant a lot to Cynthia and to me, to maintain that Creighton continuity,” Brantner said. “She was adamant about someone from Creighton being able to move into this position. We realize that Creighton, teaching pharmacy the way Creighton does and focusing on those Ignatian values of service above self, care for the whole person, is something that really makes a difference in practice. I just hope I can continue what she was doing here.”
Victoria Roche, PhD, professor of pharmacy and senior associate dean in SPAHP, enjoyed having Brantner in her elective course on Native American Cultures and Health, and said he instantly distinguished himself.
“Rich Brantner is genuine, the ‘real deal,’” Roche said. “He is a deep and reflective thinker who is well read in Native history and the cultures of many tribes. He contributed much of value to our class discussions, and stimulated the thinking of everyone around issues of Native health and social justice. His recommended books and biographies are on my list of ‘must reads.’”
Pharmacy is a second career for Brantner, who spent the better part of 20 years working as a printer for newspapers in southwest Missouri. While watching as print media began to decline, he started reading about and studying herbs and supplements, and started taking courses in chemistry and biology at a local community college.
With his prerequisites nailed down, he decided to enroll at Creighton and participated in SPAHP’s distance program for the Doctor of Pharmacy degree.
“There was really no question about working with Creighton,” he said. “The distance program was the best around and it offers so many benefits. You can study on your own, but you’re also never far from a professor who will answer your questions and guide you. I could stay where I was and not have to uproot my family and that was very important to me.”
While in Roche’s class and still trying to determine the direction he’d like to ultimately go with his degree, Brantner made a trip to an Indian Health Service (IHS) site in Oklahoma. There, he witnessed a melding of his research into his heritage and his pharmacy training in a way that was alluring and moving.
“As I started to learn more about Native American health and the opportunities to serve, it became something I definitely wanted to do,” Brantner said. “Breaking into the IHS can be tough, though, but then Dr. Roche had told me about other opportunities, including this one in Michigan.”
In talking with Roche and also visiting with Gourneau, Brantner began to see a potential future developing at Keweenaw Bay and among the autonomous community of Ojibwa living there.
“While it is rare that a new graduate assumes the position of chief pharmacist, Rich Brantner is exceptionally qualified from all perspectives: academic, personal and cultural,” Roche said. “He is committed to serving patients with compassion and dedication, and has documented competence in delivering quality care. He’s a gentle man with a good heart, one who is respectful of all and true to his word. He is connected to his own Native heritage, which will allow him to relate to his patients’ holistic health needs in ways that others might need years to learn. I have no doubt that he will thrive in this position, and I couldn’t be happier for him and for the patients and community he will serve.”
Starting in the position in late August, Brantner becomes one of at least 16 SPAHP alumni since 2000 who have undertaken positions like the one at Keweenaw Bay or with the federally-run IHS. He said he’s already been embraced by the tight-knit community and has found a new home.
“This has been the fulfillment of a lot of things for me,” Brantner said. “Since I was a child, my heritage has always been important to me and interested me. To be able to serve the people of this community is an honor and I look forward to being a part of it.”