A group of first-year Montana WWAMI students and faculty visit the Blackfeet reservation
As we drove into the small town of Browning, Mont., on the Blackfeet Reservation, the sun faded behind the snowy peaks of Glacier National Park. The bitter west wind pressed into our cars, threatening to blow us from the road. Though only five hours from our home in Bozeman, the piercing cold told us that we were someplace very different.
That evening, it became apparent that Browning’s weather was not the only difference we would encounter. We first met with Neil Sun Rhodes, M.D., a family practice doctor with the Indian Health Service (IHS). He shared his experiences — providing care with few resources — emphasizing its challenges as well as its opportunities.
For example, there are no cardiologists on the reservation. So, each month, a cardiologist makes a four-hour round-trip journey from Great Falls, Mont., to see patients in Browning. This scarcity of medical resources reemphasizes the importance of primary care in diagnosing and reducing cardiovascular risk.
Dr. Sun Rhodes says that the primary-care physicians in Browning have risen to challenges like these, providing excellent care despite limited resources. Fortunately, the Blackfeet Reservation’s location, adjacent to a famed national park, attracts many outdoorsy IHS physicians who tend to stay longer than those who work on more isolated reservations.
The next morning, we went out into the community. In the month prior to the trip, we had coordinated massive clothing and children’s book drives in the Bozeman community. Using drop-boxes at prominent local retailers and community centers, we collected enough donations to fill three trucks, three SUVs and a trailer. In Browning, we delivered the books to school libraries and the clothes to a distribution center.
Then we split up and went to the elementary, middle and high schools to talk about health professions. We also gave lessons in anatomy and physiology using cadaver lungs and hearts. The opportunity to meet such excited and engaged students was the highlight of the trip for many of us.
For lunch, we used food donations from Bozeman to prepare a large batch of chili, salad and bread for Browning’s homeless. Community members took shelter from the cold in the basement of the De La Salle Church, enjoying a hot meal, receiving flu shots administered by local nurses, and choosing from a collection of donated coats.
In the afternoon, we met with another doctor, Mary DesRosier, M.D. One of the principal organizers of our service-learning trip, Dr. DesRosier grew up in Browning and has been a family physician there for several decades.
In the afternoon, she took us to the Browning Community Hospital and showed us around its 28-bed facilities. Amazingly, its ER receives nearly 30,000 annual visits and is covered by several ER and family physicians. Dr. DesRosier described family physicians who not only did ob/gyn and emergency care, but also received training to perform C-sections and appendectomies. It was an excellent example of doctors who use the full scope of their skills and practice.
In the evening, we met with a tribal elder who discussed Blackfeet culture and life in Browning. As he spoke, we reflected on how lucky we were to be welcomed into this community, learn about its people, and have the opportunity to give something back. The next day, as we drove back to the warmer temperatures of Bozeman, our memories of Browning reminded us of what a privilege it is to be a physician-in-training.