Expanding Palliative Care on South Dakota Reservations

Finding a balance between traditional customs and modern health care is the goal of a national research project in South Dakota.

Mary Isaacson, an associate professor at South Dakota State University College of Nursing in Rapid City, has been doing research on American Indian end-of-life care for more than 10 years.

She’s part of a team developing culturally appropriate Native American palliative care programs, which is care or treatment for serious, life-threatening illnesses.

Isaacson says the first question asked as part of the project was whether hospice and palliative care is compatible with Native traditions and culture.

“And overwhelmingly yes, especially when you think about that whole person — the physical, the social, the emotional and the spiritual — that’s the premise or the foundation of palliative care,” she relates.

Isaacson notes that cancer rates are high on reservations, but palliative care is difficult to access. The closest care program is an hour from Pine Ridge, one of the largest reservations in the U.S.

Once it’s developed, the program will be rolled out starting on the Rosebud Indian Reservation before it’s introduced at Pine Ridge and on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Isaacson says her students at the College of Nursing tell her they know very little about South Dakota’s Native American population. She says the research project will help document stories of that culture, so more can be done to advocate for its health needs.

“So we have got to do a better job about educating and understanding that the needs are real, and it’s not that they want a handout,” she stresses. “They want us to help and to be a part of their healing process.”

The project is funded by a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute through South Dakota’s Avera Health, and includes a partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital.

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