Chenin Ryan is a candidate for the Physiology and Biophysics Master’s program at Georgetown University. She plans to go to medical school after she graduates and dedicate her career to serving Native American communities. But before doing so, she wanted to get to know their people and struggles better. So she served with Global Volunteers at the Blackfeet Reservation, showing us that volunteering is a great way to learn about a community.
As an aspiring physician, I have always wanted to work with underserved communities. Because I am Métis (French and Ojibwe), I have a lot of pride in my native heritage and family history. Due to my background, I am aware of many of the social and healthcare disparities in Native American communities that many people in the U.S. are still unaware of. I decided to spend a week on the Blackfeet Reservation to not only help with community projects, but to also learn about their health care issues.
While on the reservation, my group worked at three project sites. The first was Eagle Shield, a facility which cooks and delivers meals to the elders on the reservation. The second site was an elderly care center where we could help the staff with daily tasks. The third site was Pastor Hill’s Ranch, where we helped clean out a storage area and brainstormed ideas for the center he plans on building for recovering addicts. We also got to participate in some wonderful cultural experiences such as attending a traditional sweat lodge and making tribal drums and parfleches.
One of my favorite experiences from the trip occurred while I was working at the elderly care center. I was asked to help some of the women living at the center with removing their old nail polish and putting a new coat of color on. While it may seem like such a minor thing to help with, holding someone’s hand in that way allows you to connect on a deeper level. I had several ladies open up to me while I painted their nails and telling me their life stories as well as their ideas on how to bring about change in their community. I learned a lot from these ladies, and I know I will carry their stories with me for the rest of my life.
While interacting with community members, I saw firsthand how vastly underfunded Indian Health Services is. Due to low government budgets and a lack of IHS-affiliated doctors, many native people are unable to obtain basic medical treatment. From my discussions with many of the Blackfeet people, I learned that there are almost no preventative health care measures in the community. People on the reservation often only see a physician when a disease has progressed too far and there are little treatment options to be considered. No matter who I talked to, each person seemed to have a story about a family member being unable to receive ample treatment. Directly seeing the impact of these issues reinforced my desire to work with native tribes as a physician.
“I learned a lot from these ladies, and I know I will carry their stories with me for the rest of my life.”– Chenin Ryan, Global Volunteer on Blackfeet Reservation
“Directly seeing the impact of these issues reinforced my desire to work with native tribes as a physician.”– Chenin Ryan, Global Volunteer on Blackfeet Reservation
These communities also struggle with maintaining a team of physicians. I was told that many doctors go into IHS without understanding the cultural differences, end up being unhappy, and leaving after a short time. This is difficult for tribal members because it makes them unable to develop close relationships with their doctors. Because of these issues, many Native people have a big distrust of outsiders and the westernized aspects of healthcare.
Overall, this trip was a wonderful learning experience. From my interactions, I have so many new perspectives and ideas on how to bring about healthcare change in native communities. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who is looking to learn about life on a reservation.
“I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who is looking to learn about life on a reservation.”– Chenin Ryan, Global Volunteer on Blackfeet Reservation
Check out this video of a Sweat Lodge ceremony where Chenin and other volunteers participated with the Blackfeet community: