I traveled to Haiti a month after the 2010 earthquake to report on what was happening there for Stanford Medicine magazine. So when I went to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota this year with a group of Stanford students, I was incredulous to learn that the average life expectancy in this community was one year lower than Haiti’s - 46 versus 47 - and a full 33 years shorter than the average American.
Statistically speaking, the poor health of Native Americans living the Great Plains of the United States rivals many developing countries. I had no idea. Diabetes, alcoholism, and depression rates are frighteningly high. Suicide rates are 10 times the national average.
My goal in writing my in-depth story, which appears in the current issue of Stanford Medicine and was just recommended as a Longreads pick, was to try to understand how this could possibly be true, and to lend some perspective as to what could be done to change it. What I found was a toxic mix of causative factors: isolation, poverty, poor nutrition, poor education - each of which has its roots in history. What became strikingly clear during my visit to the federally funded Rosebud Indian Health Service Hospital on the reservation was that the United States government has never kept its promises, made in multiple treaties, to provide health care to Native Americans in exchange for land.
From my piece:
One afternoon during a visit to the hospital, I walk from the ER to a separate wing to find the CEO, [Sophie Two Hawk, MD, who also happens to be the first Native American to graduate from the University of South Dakota's medical school]. Her door’s ajar, and she waves me in. She’s dressed in the military-style uniform of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, her long, gray hair pulled back in a braid that drops down her back. She’s doing paperwork — denying a pile of requests from her physicians for additional care for their patients. The requests are appropriate, she says, but the hospital just doesn’t have the money to pay for the care. "If someone shows up with a torn ACL, we can’t afford to fix it," she says. "He will walk with a limp." Two Hawk, like many others, links the poor health statistics of Native Americans not only to the lack of adequate (federal) funding but to the community’s tragic history. The hopelessness, the despair — it’s rooted in history.
The story delves into some of that history, including the forced relocation of Native American children to faraway boarding schools, another particularly ugly chapter in history that I knew nothing about. This forced relocation led to "cultural distortion, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and the ripple effect of loss of parenting skills and communal grief," a government study states. Hope on the second poorest county in the country - neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation comes in first place - is a struggle to find. But it's there, particularly in the strong bonds of the community itself:
Leaving Two Hawk, I head to the office next door where another Native American hospital employee, psychologist Rebecca Foster, PhD, works. When I knock on her office door, she’s taking a break to cradle her week-old grandson. Foster and her husband, Dan, also Native and a psychologist at the hospital, have 14 children — seven of those adopted from relatives on the reservation who were unable to care for them. All seven of those children are special needs, like the baby’s father, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome... " I see a lot of kids who are depressed, who talk about suicide," she says, then pauses to look into the eyes of her grand baby. "And yet, kids are still resilient. They still have a desire to have a good life, to be happy, to accomplish things. No matter where you come from, you can never completely destroy that. There are very few kids here who don’t have a dream. What I tell young people is that 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’s a prison, the other is a home."
Previously: Finding hope on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, 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
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster