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An Indian doctor comes home

or my "Prairie Voices" interview feature that will appear on the Sunday Herald's Insight page, I spoke withDr. Monica Mayer, a physician in private practice at the Trinity Community Clinic in New Town, N.D. I did so because she and I had previous...

or my "Prairie Voices" interview feature that will appear on the Sunday Herald's Insight page, I spoke withDr. Monica Mayer, a physician in private practice at the Trinity Community Clinic in New Town, N.D. I did so because she and I had previously talked about the astounding number of patients she has who have diabetes or are alcoholic on Indian reservations, especially the Fort Berthold Reservation, where she works.

There is no doubt that diabetes is an epidemic, and it's certainly expensive for the state and federal governments. (In North Dakota as elsewhere, the disease affects American Indians and non-Indians alike.) The "Prairie Voices" interview gives some statistics and costs.

Mayer has contributed hours and hours of her time toward ridding the community of diabetes and alcoholism. Her mother and my childhood friend, Avis, is a victim of diabetes.

Mayer also has taken aim at alcoholism, which she calls the scourge of Indian reservations. The statistics might be pushing against the top scale of the alcohol abuse charts, too. Combined, these diseases keep the doors of Trinity Community Clinic and the Indian Health clinic in New Town swinging so fast that the health care providers sometimes are left exhausted and frustrated, she told me.

I know about both diseases. My brother, Pony (Allen), died from alcoholism several years ago. Where hunting, Sundancing and the like once were rites of passage, today it seems that drugs and alcohol are considered rites of passage, although that passage at times can lead to death.


My Aunt Pearl had diabetes when she was about 49. Three of my sisters and many cousins also have the disease. Mayer believes Indian people had the disease many years ago, but their very active lifestyles kept the disease at bay, she said.

Aunt Pearl lived to be 83. She had diabetes for about 34 years.

As Mayer talked, I thought of my mother, who had 13 children and did enough work for four people. As a young woman, she could drive a team, haul water, lift bales of hay, garden and change diapers, all in the same day.

I tried loading hay bales once. I could only load a few before it became too much for me.

When I was growing up, we always had two full gardens - a large one down in the coulee about a mile away and another garden just a short walk from the house. My grandmother, even as old as she was, would be out there every evening cleaning the garden.

I remember as a child what a delicious meal she made of new peas and small, red, new potatoes from the garden. She cooked them with a little flour thickening and salt and pepper.

Our food was simple and usually included things from the garden, wild plants and berries. For meat, we had venison, prairie chicken and sometimes beef or pork that we had to butcher ourselves.

The point Dr. Mayer made is that our lifestyles are different today. Our parents were able to live with diabetes because their lifestyles were extremely active. Today, on the other hand, Indian people don't ask each other, "Do you have diabetes?" It's "When did you get the disease?"


I don't have diabetes . . . yet. But but the disease hangs around me, waiting like a hungry dog. When I eat a candy bar or potato chips, a little whining voice inside says, "Isn't that pre-diabetes food?"

Hmm, my sister said when I told her this. Is that voice a sign of mental problems? I'll ask Dr. Mayer, I said, with a edge to my voice.

Mayer, by the way, saw all these things happening on the Fort Berthold Reservation as she grew up. She is beginning her own personal war on these two diseases.

I had to laugh a little at some of the things she's done to try to steer young people away from alcohol abuse and diabetes. I've seen with my own eyes the amazing changes that she has made single-handedly in some young people on the reservation.

Mayer has taken some hardcore users and handled them with threats and challenges, but she always combines this "tough love" with kindness and nurturing.

It is amazing how many young professionals there are on or near reservations today. I believe the Three Affiliated Tribes have about five doctors who are members of the tribe and who work on or near the area. We have many, many more nurses - some with masters' degrees.

Mayer is an example of those health professionals we are seeing more and more of on Indian reservations. They are our people taking care of their own.

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