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Health Disparities, Rural Health

Finding hope on the Rosebud Indian Reservation

Finding hope on the Rosebud Indian Reservation

Statistics often don’t tell the whole story. In the case of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where I traveled last month to write an article for today’s issue of Inside Stanford Medicine, statistics tell a horrifying story. The average life expectancy among the 9,000 residents of the Lakota Sioux tribe is 47 years for the average male, compared to 77 years nationwide. That’s one year younger than Haiti’s 48. Unemployment rates range from 65-80 percent; diabetes, alcoholism and suicide are at epidemic levels.

A group of Stanford students traveled there to spend the week building homes for Habitat for Humanity, volunteering in the  Indian Health Service hospital on the reservation, and meeting community leaders in one of the poorest places in the nation. My story describes their experiences:

Each morning, students sat in on the hospital meetings, hearing firsthand the daily struggles of the staff. They heard about the pregnant patient with diabetes who lost her baby the night before, her wails echoing down the hospital halls; they heard about yet another suicide victim, a 25-year-old man who hanged himself two days before. They listened to the staff triaging what levels of care they could afford to provide.

But my article doesn’t nearly tell the whole story. It doesn’t describe the close-knit community on a reservation that has survived a tragic history, the sense of pride and determination among those struggling against the hopelessness that has taken so many young peoples’ lives. One of those Native Americans, Rebecca Foster, PhD, a psychologist at the Rosebud Indian Health Service Hospital, told me about her determination to get an education so that she could return to the reservation to give back. She and her husband are parents to 14 children, seven of them with special needs whom the couple adopted from relatives on the reservation. She talked to me in her office while holding her newborn grandson:

What I tell the young people here is, there is a difference between having to stay here because you are trapped. And choosing to be here because you have something to give. One is a prison, the other is a home… I see a lot of kids who are depressed, who talk about suicide, but they are still resilient. They still have a desire to have a good life, to be happy, to accomplish things. You can never destroy that. There are still a lot of wonderful things on the reservation.

I hope to tell more of these stories in the fall edition of Stanford Medicine magazine.

Previously: Getting back to the basics: A student’s experience working with the Indian Health Service, Lessons from a reservation: Clinic provides insight on women’s health issues, Lessons from a reservation: South Dakota trip sheds light on a life in rural medicine and Lessons from a reservation: Visit to emergency department shows patient care challenges
Photo by Layton Lamsam

2 Responses to “ Finding hope on the Rosebud Indian Reservation ”

  1. Jeff Robertson Says:

    I lived on the Rosebud Reservation for three months delivering eye care to the residents there. I was told that during that time someone who I knew would be killed in an automobile accident due to drunk driving. I did not believe them. It was my pleasure to live on the reservation and I was able to get to know a few people on a personal level. Sure enough one Saturday morning while eating at the hospital cafeteria we found out that someone we knew was killed in a drunk driving accident. We were told not to go out on a Friday night because of all the drunk drivers. On Saturday morning there would be a number of cars sitting wrecked in ditches off the road. There was a pottery factory near the clinic and they would not pay people until lunch time on Friday, after they got their check they never came back to work in the afternoon. We were told they were out drinking. This was in the summer of 1977, it seems that things have not changed. I will always treasure my experience and hope to go back there one day.

  2. Patricia Simonik Says:

    I, too, lived on the Rosebud Reservation from 1974 to1984. And, I knew a number of people during that time who were kill in alcohol-related auto accidents. It was a terrible loss, personally and for the Lakota people.

    Fortunately, I also got to know many people from a number of communities and experienced their courage, steadfastness, humor, hard work to maintain their households in a healthy state. They lived their lives working on physical health, mental health, and cultural health. It was a lesson for my own life.

    I will never forget the people of the Rosebud. I feel a strong calling even now, 30 years later, that I want and need to go back. I hope that comes true some day.


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