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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

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