Our Relatives

By: Whitnee Pearce

Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ is Lakota for “we are all related”. This is a concept that is very much woven into the very fiber of not only the culture of the Lakota but throughout the daily duties, lifestyle, and choices you make as a relative to all. I currently work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and this phrase is something that I believe even those outside of the communities should consider and remember when they are living their lives.

For the Pine Ridge community, Indian Health Services (IHS), is the only health care provider. Unfortunately, while IHS was created to maintain treaty rights for Native Americans from the US Government, the health services provided by IHS are some of the most “bottom of the barrel” services provided throughout the United States. According to Red Cloud Indian School, “Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the lowest in the United States—twenty years less than communities just 400 miles away—and on par with the countries of India, Sudan and Iraq”. While this number may seem staggering, it does not stop there. According to the American Indian Humanitarian Fund, “death due to heart disease is twice the national average, the infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average, almost 50% of the adults on the Reservation over the age of 40 have diabetes, teenage suicide rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation is 150% higher than the U.S. national average, and at least 60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with Black Mold, Stachybotrys.” IHS lacks preventative care for individuals, technology to treat the advancement of illnesses, and are understaffed and ill-equipped to manage the numbers of individuals needing not only treatment, but diagnosis.

I see every day from my students, friends, coworkers, the need for patient advocacy, particularly in the area of IHS. I see my students become sick, lose loved ones unexpectedly from misdiagnosis, and even have watched as students as young as 27 years old battle stage 3 cervical cancer while attending school due to mistreatment at IHS. I have also watched a coworker and someone who I view as my relative suffer daily at work as he drove students, took care of the grounds work of the college, and maintain the college center. He was in so much pain daily but pushed through for the betterment of his “relatives” and the school. Although he saw doctor after doctor, he never received any answers and IHS would not refer him on to the larger hospital, Rapid City Regional Hospital for help. Due to his poverty conditions, he could not seek outside opinions or medical help. In less than a year he died suddenly and after further investigation, he had colon cancer that had been left untreated and misdiagnosed. He could have not only potentially survived, but lived more years without suffering if he would have been advocated for as he deserved.

Seeing with my own eyes, relatives suffer and die due to inefficient patient care is one of the hardest things I have ever had to witness. Patient advocacy is imperative at all medical facilities to ensure that patients’ rights are being maintained and that they are not being shuffled along due to inadequate funds, lack of equipment, or lackadaisical attitudes by medical professionals. Patient advocacy can truly save lives and I believe if there were a better infrastructure of patient advocacy within the Indian Health Services that the treatment and survival of Native Americans would be much higher in this country.

Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ: we are all related. What would you do to save your relative?

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