By Jared Ritz
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION Officials of the American Diabetes Association and American Dental Association, as well as government representatives were at the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation Tuesday for a meeting on the health of its residents.
Dr. Eric Broderick, special adviser to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Scott Campbell, vice president of research for the American Diabetes Association, and a staff member from the office of U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., were all in attendance. The gathering, put together by the Rocky Boy Health Board, focused on the problems of diabetes and dental care faced by reservation residents, and what has been and can be done to help.
A check in both the "has been" and "can be" columns is $100 million in government grants to American Indian reservations that apply, including Rocky Boy. The five-year grant program is up for renewal by Congress this year.
The reservation first received a grant in 1998, and many changes have occurred since. The grant led to the growth of the Rocky Boy health clinic staff from 33 people in 1994 to 111 now. A Diabetes Wellness Center was created to help those with the disease learn better eating and exercise habits, with a seven-day-a-week exercise center. A special diabetes clinic is held every Wednesday morning.
Dr. James Eastlick, interim CEO for the Rocky Boy Health Board, said the importance of the grant cannot be exaggerated.
"Diabetes is a main focus for us," Eastlick said in an interview. "All the progress ... and programs are contingent on it being renewed."
Even with the positive changes, health care on the reservation is still in a poor state, said Alvin Windy Boy Sr., chairman of the Chippewa Cree tribal council.
"I can't show you the things I do have, but I can show you the things I don't have, and that's good, quality health care," he told the gathering.
A statement written by Windy Boy for the visitors illustrated the problem. The rate of people with diabetes on Rocky Boy is 249 percent higher than that of the general population.
"My people here at Rocky Boy don't have a religion. We have a way of life," he said. "The way of life we knew long ago ... was that of activity. Our lifestyles have changed."
Fewer families are farming and ranching than when he was a child, which leads to less activity and exercise, Windy Boy said.
A lack of activity is making children less fit.
"We are seeing obesity in younger and younger kids," Eastlick said.
Yvonne Hill, the diabetes coordinator for the Rocky Boy Health Board, thinks there is a fix to this problem.
"Exercise and diet have proven to be the best way to avoid diabetes," she said. "More activities for the community to participate in."
The direction Hill and others see the diabetes program heading toward is one of prevention.
According to Hill, 18 percent of the population at Rocky Boy has diabetes and about 18 percent is prediabetic. To prevent the prediabetics, some of whom are very young, from getting the disease, some changes have been made in the place where children are sure to be school.
A dietitian has been assigned to the Rocky Boy school system, grades kindergarten through 12, who makes suggestions and oversees the menus the schools serve during lunch. Eastlick said this program has been a great success in the short time it has been running. The schools have also hired a physical therapist to lead the children in exercise programs. The program is in the beginning stages, but Eastlick said it looks promising.
Dental health is also an issue on the reservation, and ties directly into the diabetes problem. Eastlick said an effect of diabetes is increased susceptibility to bacterial infections, both from the disease itself and deterioration of teeth from diabetes medication.
This problem is worsened by a severe shortage of dentists on the reservation. The reservation of 5,000 people has two dentists. That number of people would be serviced by four or five dentists in the general population.