Tuesday proved to be a good day to not lay down and die but, instead, to rise up and speak out as well over 100 Native Americans gathered in Comanche Country to discuss the state of Indian healthcare.
Grievances were aired as a collective of Native Americans converged on the Comanche Nation Tribal Complex's new conference room for a public forum. The reason was to collect stories of care and experiences with the Indian Health Service (IHS). Fort Sill Apache Vice Chair Lori Gooday Ware voiced the thoughts of many filling the room to overflowing.
"It's happened to people we know and I feel for you," Ware said. "I feel for the people that have lost people.
"I'm hurt, I'm angry and I'm not going to let it go," she said.
After hearing hours of testimony from other Native Americans, Ware choked back tears to share her story of loss due to what she said is the dreaded "back and forth" resulting with inaction by the IHS. She said it could have caused the death of her brother a little over a month ago. Following a seizure Memorial Day weekend, she said he'd sought treatment and possible tests through the Lawton hospital but continued to be shuttled between departments and never approved for a much-needed MRI.
"They could have maybe found out what was causing it, but he died first," Ware said.
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"We'll never know if that MRI would have helped him."
Ware joined Apache Tribe of Oklahoma Chairman Lyman Guy in support of the effort led by Comanche Nation Chairman Wallace Coffey and the tribe's administration and legal team from Crowe & Dunlevy. Coffey said the meeting was called to help decide what direction in which to go. He and the tribe's lawyers, along with the other two leaders were joined by members from the seven tribes of Southwest Oklahoma Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Fort Sill Apache, Wichita and affiliated tribes, Caddo and Delaware to share their experiences through the IHS. The turnout was overwhelming, he said, but the experiences shared were distressing.
"I didn't know so many would come here to speak out," Coffey said. "I'm overjoyed by your response. Today, I think we'll find we're of the same concern."
Tuesday was filled with a litany of stories of bad experiences. Coffey shared his story of being bitten by a spider on his hand. He said he went to the Lawton Indian Hospital at 4 p.m. and sat in the emergency room awaiting care until 9 p.m. As a member of the Indian Health Board, he said he and other tribal leaders are kept at a distance by "advisory position" status and are not allowed the proper input.
Jimmy Goodman, an attorney for Crowe & Dunlevy, took testimony from those who wished to offer complaints, including from many who wished to make anonymous statements due to a fear of retribution. Once collected, Coffey said the testimony could be the groundwork for action, including the possibility of a class-action suit all in an effort to make sure the government takes care of responsibilities assumed with the first treaties between the United States and the Native tribes.
The Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for providing federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Many of the personnel come from the Commission Corps.
"I have a real serious issue with the Commission Corps," Coffey said. "Those that wear the uniform sometimes have treated our people with a lack of dignity and respect."
Comanche tribal member and 100 percent disabled Army veteran Eleanor McDaniel said that she had medical issues the VA couldn't help with and was directed to IHS for care. Numerous cancelled appointments by the IHS, not her left her angry. Citing the Commission Corps link to military rank and protocol, she said she believes she knows part of the reason for the perceived inefficiency and lack of care.
"I feel the commissioned officers are looking at their own advancement and not patient care," McDaniel said. "Because of their personal ambitions, our people are suffering."
One of the calls to arms for many of the people who filled the conference room was over the recent suspension of Dr. William Kirkpatrick Reid, oncologist at Lawton Indian Hospital. Many who told how he was punished for going beyond the call to order tests and lab work to get to the bottom of his patients' ails. In turn, the patients say they've been punished.
"It seems like they punish all the patients that go to see him," said Barbara Goodin, a Comanche who receives care for a host of health issues. "I don't know what the answer is."
Kiowa tribal member Margie Pence told the panel how Dr. Reid not only treated her family completely, but also with dignity. This is something not felt otherwise, she said.
"The problem is the feeling of inferiority by the majority of the staff," Pence said. "Their attitudes are demeaning."
Raymond Perosi, a Comanche, told of his sister being shuttled back and forth but never fully treated by IHS. Her death continues to haunt him.
"I watched her die," Perosi said. "It's hard to watch someone you love die because of mistreatment."
Perosi told of his own travails at the Lawton hospital's emergency room. After waiting for six hours for treatment, he went to Comanche County Memorial Hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and began receiving treatment within a half hour. He said he's not been treated as a "whole person" at the Indian Hospital.
"The government needs to be ashamed of itself," Perosi said. "We are not second-class citizens, second-class persons. We are the first Americans."
No officials with Indian Health Service were in attendance, but former service unit director Hickory Starr, himself a patient of IHS, joined with the many to say that things are off the rails by virtue of repeating the same mistakes over and again. Since leaving the job three years ago, he said the rut of bureaucracy has entrenched as the status quo.
"They've been doing things the same old way for so long, they don't want to change," Starr said.
The forum was intended to kickstart that change. Coffey said Tuesday's meeting was to collect as many testimonies as possible and he hoped it would initiate an audit of the hospital. While an advisory board in Oklahoma City could be a next step to take complaints, the chairman said he isn't afraid to take the issue to Washington, D.C.
"I don't know that I want to go to Oklahoma City's health court," Coffey said. "I want to go to Congress."
In giving his invocation before the meeting, J.T. Goombi offered a prayer that summed up what the hope for the testimony that followed would bring:
"May something good come from this."