Students Opt For Alternative Spring Break
Spending Spring Break week on an Indian reservation turned out to be a dramatic lesson in life for 14 Feinberg School of Medicine students. They're already making plans for a return trip to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, one of the poorest counties in the United States and home to the Lakota tribe.
The group of first year medical students traveled by car and worked, slept, and ate at a rural community youth center called the "Main." It's where young children come to learn and play and teens drop in and hang out to stay away from gangs, alcohol, drugs, and abuse, which are pervasive on the reservation.
There is a huge need for health and dental care for the people who live on the reservation, says Mike Granieri, a Feinberg student from Burr Ridge, Illinois. "The young kids are like kids you'd meet anywhere across the country and they are oblivious to their situation. They wanted piggy back rides and to play with us." But after age 10 or so, he said, the kids are exposed to more negative influences and the focus turns to drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and chewing tobacco. Attending school is not strictly enforced, so some of the older kids tend to drift and get in trouble.
The students worked on arts and craft projects with the younger kids and one day they held a "Main University" event where they talked with them about their health. "We made it fun and let them listen to each other's hearts with the stethoscope and we talked about the lungs, ears, and blood pressure," said Granieri. "They were amazed where we showed them how their reflexes work. They liked the tuning fork, too."
They switched gears for the older kids by holding a college night in which they shared their experiences as doctors in training with the tribe's teenagers. "We wanted to talk to them about their aspirations, their education, and let them know what's involved in getting into medical school," said Yaw Nyame, a Feinberg student from Edmond, Oklahoma.
The students all agreed they would like to go back to the reservation as fourth year medical students when they will have the knowledge and skills to provide medical care, diagnose disease earlier on, and do more to help the people on the reservation. The Indian Health Services, they found out, is heavily under funded and cannot meet the needs of the community.
It's not surprising that diabetes and other health problems are so rampant on the reservation, says Haley Goucher, a Feinberg student from Olathe, Kansas. "We learned that fruits and vegetables are prohibitively expensive for most people here, so it's really hard for them to eat right. There's a very high rate of diabetes in the community and I can see why."
One day the students delivered food to seniors in the community and got to see first hand the living conditions for the tribe. "It was pretty startling," said Granieri, who visited the one or two room houses. "There would be three kids on one mattress and a horse stable inside the house."
"We're still trying to absorb the experience," says Nyame. "It will affect how I live my life the rest of my life. I know I'll always make an effort to keep poor communities like this in mind."
He said several of the students are trying to figure out a way to go back to the reservation this summer. The Office of Minority and Cultural Affairs (OMCA) sponsored the trek after last year's trip to the reservation proved to be such a wonderful experience, said Sunny Gibson, Director of OMCA. "It's an invisible population that we rarely hear about," she said. "American Indians have some of the worst health outcomes and child poverty rates of any other minority group in the US, and unfortunately because their numbers are small relative to other minority groups, they are often left out of data sets. This means many students and subsequent professionals are unaware of the challenges of American Indians face in both urban and rural areas."
Goucher says the experience has made her think seriously about the practice of rural medicine because she was amazed at the impact a physician practicing in such an underserved area can have. "I'm now strongly considering a career in rural emergency medicine and want to do an elective rotation there during my fourth year."
Granieri says that he was touched by the outpouring of support for their stay and the value the people at the reservation place on the community center. One day he and the other Feinberg students took to the streets to solicit donations to help fund the center. "People gave us whatever they had, even if it was only a quarter. They obviously know how important the center is to the future of their youth."
I'm now strongly considering a career in rural emergency medicine and want to do an elective rotation there during my fourth year."
This page last updated Sep 13, 2011