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THHS healthcare camp plants seeds in young students minds

By B.L. Azure

Five college age students seeking medical professions education and careers, and several middle school students participated in the first ever THHS healthcare careers camp at Blue Bay. (B.L. Azure photo) Five college age students seeking medical professions education and careers, and several middle school students participated in the first ever THHS healthcare careers camp at Blue Bay. (B.L. Azure photo)

BLUE BAY — Last week the first-ever Tribal Health and Human Service’s eight-week internship program ended with a three-day healthcare camp at Blue Bay. The five THHS interns planned and facilitated the camp that catered to middle school students interested in careers in the healthcare fields. The camp is part of the THHS goals of being the primary healthcare providers for eligible tribal people on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Tribal Health and Human Services Department Director Kevin Howlett said the THHS internship program is a long-term investment that would come to fruition further down the road.

“The internship program came about after years and years of talking about getting our people educated and trained for the positions that exist in the tribal programs,” Howlett said. “We want to get the young students thinking about career choices available to them at an early age. The Tribal Health’s internship program with the college-age students serving as mentors to the middle school age students is our commitment to the goal of educating people for the professions that exist in Tribal Health. The five interns spot light that commitment.”

The middle school students at the THHS camp got some hands-on experience related to healthcare careers. (B.L. Azure photo) The middle school students at the THHS camp got some hands-on experience related to healthcare careers. (B.L. Azure photo)

Howlett said it would take four to six years of college to educate students for some of the professions within the tribal system. It would take a bit longer for the students enrolled in the medical profession at colleges and universities.

The commitment to the education of tribal members in the medical professions had its genesis under Howlett’s commitment to change the way Tribal Health operated in the past.

“Ten years ago we weren’t doing in-house healthcare. We were just processors of the payments due to third party healthcare providers,” Howlett said. “I think the direction change and what we have been able to accomplish in the last 10 years if really humbling.”

The direction change to being primary healthcare providers instead of administrative bill payers has created many professional job opportunities within THHS. Many of the professional positions at THHS are manned by non-Indian medical professionals but that will change in the future. The new direction has also created a way to fund the five THHS clinics spread throughout the Flathead Reservation.

The middle school students were all ears and questions at the THHS health careers camp. (B.L. Azure photo) The middle school students were all ears and questions at the THHS health careers camp. (B.L. Azure photo)

Howlett said the Tribal Council commitment to the THHS changes was a condition of his agreeing to come back and direct Tribal Health.

“We had to do something different. Money was being spent but our healthcare needs weren’t adequately being met. In 2003 we began to piece together the route we wanted the new direction to take us,” he said. “We pieced together an ambitious but realistic plan. There was no logical reason for us to continue the old way where we pushed the money out the door to other healthcare providers who in turn created jobs within their systems. We want to be the creator of jobs for the tribal membership.”

Tribal Health now provides primary healthcare to 40-percent of tribal healthcare recipients. The ultimate goal is 100-percent, it may not be achievable but that will not hinder the striving to reach it. The bottom line regardless is an expanded role in healthcare provision for the eligible clientele.

“This isn’t just about today. It’s also about the Tribes having a seat at the healthcare table in western Montana. We are big players and we’ll be at the table,” Howlett said. “We recognize our actions have changed the healthcare landscape. We want to be the provider of choice for people eligible for treaty-based healthcare.”

Dr. LeeAnna Muzquiz checks the nerve ending reflexes on the knees of a THHS camp participant. (B.L. Azure photo)Dr. LeeAnna Muzquiz checks the nerve ending reflexes on the knees of a THHS camp participant. (B.L. Azure photo)

A part of the commitment to be the provider of choice is to have tribal members and descendants be the healthcare providers the eligible clientele interface with.

“The five interns will have the opportunity of a professional career in Tribal Health,” Howlett said. “I have made a personal commitment to them to ensure success in the professional healthcare fields they have chosen.”

The five college student THHS interns are Nicole Callahan, Alice Van Gunten, Jessi Cahoon, Adessa Durglo and Thomas McClure.

Each of the interns is pursuing a degree in a specific healthcare profession.

Callahan is studying behavioral health; Van Gunten is in medical; Cahoon is in pharmacy; Durglo in physical therapy; and, McClure in dentistry.

“Our goal is to expand the internship program. In three years I want to have 15 to 20 tribal members in the program,” Howlett said. “That is an absolutely achievable goal.”

The five interns mentored along side of THHS professional healthcare providers throughout the summer.

One of their responsibilities beyond them being mentored was to plan the THHS healthcare camp held at Blue Bay last week. In that camp plan the interns served as mentors to 21 middle school students. The students were mostly 7th graders with a few 6th and 8th grade students participating.

Tribal Council Chair Joe Durglo visited with the THHS camp participants at Blue Bay last week. (B.L. Azure photo) Tribal Council Chair Joe Durglo visited with the THHS camp participants at Blue Bay last week. (B.L. Azure photo)

“This was the first time effort: the internships and them mentoring the younger students. I think it was a great success,” Howlett said. “And whether or not the young students chose a career in the medical field we want to encourage them to attend college for a degree of their choice that’s good for them, good for their families and good for the membership. They will be role models.”

“The camp has been really smooth,” said Cindy McAfee, THHS Clinical Practice manager. “Doing this camp in a natural environment is part of the learning experience. The medical professions are very complex so we want to expose the camp participants to a lot of different healthcare careers and to think about education differently. It is fun, it is technical and it is spiritual. That is a very unique collaboration.”

“It has been a great eight week experience with the interns,” said Brenda Bodner, THHS dietician. “The interns were in charge of the camp as a part of their experience.”

Doctor, Doctor, Mr. MD can you tell me what’s ailing me. THHS camp participants found out that learning can be fun. (B.L. Azure photo) Doctor, Doctor, Mr. MD can you tell me what’s ailing me. THHS camp participants found out that learning can be fun. (B.L. Azure photo)

“It’s important to have young people in leadership roles,” said Tribal Council Chair Joe Durglo. “I can visualize these interns providing my healthcare needs 10 years from now.”

“Tribal Health is planting a seed,” said intern Thomas McClure. “From small things like this effort, big things grow. A few years ago I was like these camp students. I was looking up at people as role models. Now whether I like it or not, I am a role model to these students.”

“This internship commitment will help me throughout my college education,” said intern Adessa Durglo. “This summer internship has given me a look at what I can expect in a healthcare field. The mentoring to these young students at this camp convinced me that my healthcare career choice is a good one.”

And the interns have convinced Howlett that THHS is headed in the right direction.

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