“It’s barebones only at the Indian Health Service hospital that I do surgery at,” said Billings, Montana surgeon Joseph Erpelding to the Great Falls Tribune. “Most other doctors won’t go there because they say ‘you don’t have the right toys.'”
But the doctor who has volunteered on aid trips to the Amazon and “Save the Sight” missions to Zambia to treat children with trachoma, an eye infection leading to blindness, is requesting skilled surgeons to join him in southern Montana, where he has worked for a decade as a contract Indian Health Service surgeon, mostly on the Crow Indian Reservation and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Working with the National Indian Health Board (NIHB) and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, Erpelding is launching a pilot program to bring “goodwill surgeons” to the two reservations–a somewhat similar, domestic version of the Doctors Without Borders program, which brings immediate medical care to victims of war and disaster in foreign countries. “Every three or four months there’s somebody in the paper who went to Honduras or Haiti. If people are willing to do that, and there are many, why not do it at Crow Hospital?” Erpelding told the Great Falls Tribune. “You don’t need a visa. You don’t need to hide behind a fence and have guards.”
To aid recruitment, the NIHB is seeking grant money to purchase new equipment for the Crow and Cheyenne IHS facilities, reported the Great Falls Tribune.
A similar effort on a Montana-based reservation serves the Blackfeet Nation, reported the Great Falls Tribune. At least 60 nurses, physicians and physical therapists have joined the the Blackfeet Volunteer Medical Corp, which has operated for more than a decade in northwestern Montana, according to the “Giving Spirits” documentary about the organization.
“We’re very limited in what services we do provide to our people,” said Forest P. Little Dog, a Blackfeet Nation elder, on the documentary. “Most of the people here don’t have health insurance, so the only place they got is this hospital.”
And according to James Kennedy, CEO of the Blackfeet Community Hospital, without the help of the Blackfeet Volunteer Medical Corp, a lack of funds causes treatment of some major health complications to be reduced to a pill. “The way modern medicine works is, if things are cost prohibitive, they give them a pill,” Kennedy said in the documentary. “It might be a pain pill, it might be a pill of some type, but the actual procedure that people need doesn’t happen, so they have to go without.”