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Close the Pine Ridge gap: Miles and medicine

Some 650 miles to our west, just a day’s drive, the people living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation struggle with healthcare access that their counterparts in La Crosse take for granted. Isolated and sparsely populated, the South Dakota reservation is vast—3,500 square miles—with painful statistics revealing it as the poorest place per capita in the country.

Pine Ridge Surgery Team

Gundersen Medical Foundation and Native American leaders selected the Pine Ridge Reservation for a Global Partners partnership because of the vital need for medical and specialty services, educational support and community partnerships.

But the statistics derived from checkboxes on a census form only paint part of the picture. Cathy Meinecke, RN, Gundersen Decorah Clinic, joined a volunteer team in November. She says: “I could only think of all the ways to admire the people of Pine Ridge. They are resilient and kind and spiritual. They are tough and hearty. We were fortunate enough to be able to come home with some understanding of the Lakota culture, taught to us by the very people we came to help.”

Great things have been accomplished together with our partner communities there, in large part because Global Partners is not a program of parachute philanthropy: Global Partners is in it for the long haul and nurtures its connection with these under-resourced communities on every successive trip West.

Trips such as these offer lifelong memories and friendships, not just with the Lakota people but among your co-volunteers and colleagues at Gundersen. True, the work is hard. But it is rewarding, as seen in this account by Ellen Hanson, RN, Emergency Services. Ellen was part of the first Global Partners surgery team to volunteer on Rosebud, a reservation to the east of Pine Ridge.

“The cases we did this week weren’t huge, miraculous ones (well the C-section and watching a little life emerge was a miracle!) But they made a difference in the lives of the patients. The hernias and gallbladder removals we performed didn’t have to be referred out, which saves resources that could be used for orthopaedic patients, who wait the longest for referral funding.

“These patients didn’t have to try to find and pay for transportation to the referral facility, which is often a challenge as many don’t have their own vehicles. The cyst- and lipoma-patients have less pain and better self-image. The house cleaner with the huge knee cyst will be able to work with much less pain…”

“We feel this first trip was a success! We learned to improvise with supplies and equipment. We learned about the native culture and built bridges, meeting some amazing staff that we hope to connect with again in the future.”

If you want to be a part of this community-to-community collaboration, call ext. 51903 or email [email protected] and express your interest.

Follow the teams at

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