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Healthy Heart Project

American Indian Reservations face a disturbing trend in the spread of type II diabetes. Formerly known as Adult Onset Diabetes, this strain of the disease is largely a result of a sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthy diet. In hopes of curbing the growth of the afflicted population, the US Congress started the Healthy Heart Project, a series of grants funding extra healthcare and resources such as exercise and cooking classes for Indian Health Service facilities.

With a summer fellowship from the Public Service Center, Laura Daher, (Course 5, ’07) became involved in the Healthy Heart Project funded by the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. Working with Dr. Katrina Terry, a family practitioner at the Taos-Picuris Health Center located on the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, Laura performed a screening and evaluation of possible Healthy Heart Project candidates. She also helped to create a document detailing the interactions between herbal weight loss supplements and mainstream diabetes medicine. For the upcoming diabetes information fair, Laura designed the content using the established Honoring the Gift of Heart Health curriculum.

Upon arriving, Laura was struck by the differences between clinic work and her life at MIT. "Unlike MIT, where one's work and home life blend and students are on academic call 24/7, the events at the clinic always had to accommodate the schedule of the traditional activities of the pueblos." Many of these traditions remained a mystery as well, owing to the value of privacy to the local tribes. "When I first met Dr. Terry, I was surprised that she could not answer some of my questions about the pueblos, but I soon found out why," says Laura. According to her, inquiring about traditions is not socially acceptable among the Pueblo; information must be offered, not requested. "Some things you may never learn, and other things might come as a surprise. Everything that I learned about the pueblos was a gift from someone I had grown close to."

According to Josephine Shije, a nurse at the clinic, the lack of resources is one of their greatest issues. "Every year our Indian Health Service budget is less and all the facilities must try to work with the same amount of funding or less, but are expected to offer the same amount of services to a growing population. … For the Healthy Heart program we could hire permanent recruiters to be out in the communities daily and spread the word and get more participants signed up. Maybe then the people would be more informed about our program and be inclined to join," Shije wrote in an e-mail. Through her work over the summer, Laura hopes participation in the Healthy Heart Project will increase, and more community members, upon learning about the program, will come to take advantage of what the clinic has to offer.

Through her work with Dr. Terry and the case workers, and her interactions with local community members, Laura has come to more deeply appreciate the importance of a respectful patient/doctor relationship. "Their trust has given me insight that will enable me to provide more effective care as I proceed to medical school. Every aspect of this project has been a gift, inspiring me to continue this circle of giving."

Read more about students and their public service projects...