Standing Rock Report: Medical Care in High Demand For Battered Protectors

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Yesterday, water protectors again swam across the Canon Ball River to retake the land in which their ancestors are buried. Last time, they were met with armed police at the river’s far bank. But yesterday they were able to scramble halfway up a hill on the far side of the river before the police unleashed pepper spray and mace. Those protectors and journalists who were hit particularly hard scrambled and tumbled down the hill. I happened to be a part of this retreating crowd. Luckily, there were medics waiting to help people at the bottom of the hill. I struck up a conversation with a medic who was spraying milk in my eyes. That conversation eventually led me back to the medics’ tent, where I spoke with a number of the camp’s medical personnel.

Later in the day, I spoke with a medic named Vanessa outside the medics’ army tent while patients passed through and asked for help. Vanessa, a paramedic by training, sent most of the people who came in to the herbalists’ tent next door. The medics at Standing Rock have enormous respect for the herbalists. “Where we can just treat symptoms,” Vanessa said, “the herbalists can provide real healing in a very traditional way.” She probably wasn’t thinking of axe wounds and broken toes, but most internal ailments did seem to be sent to the herbalists. Another medic went so far as to say, “anything we can fix, the herbalists can fix it better.”

Vanessa, an indigenous medic from Oklahoma, has overseen close cooperation between natives and non-natives: “As many native people can be involved in stuff like this, the better,” she said. Indigenous people are often “understandably mistrusting” of white doctors making recommendations. But there are a few non-native medics working at Standing Rock who “are being respectful and have become very respected.”

Vanessa and those other medics have become increasingly concerned with the violence the cops are exhibiting. It’s gotten bad enough that, “every day that we come back from an action and nobody’s dead, we give thanks. Because that’s what it’s rapidly approaching.” Extreme violence is on the rise at Standing Rock not only because police and protectors are growing frustrated, but also because “there are plants from Energy Transfer Partners.” Those instigators are “trying to get things to that point of violence.” Vanessa voiced a common suspicion I’ve heard—that the two trucks that were burned a couple weeks ago were burned by DAPL agents acting as protestors. Vanessa suspects those agents are still at camp, so she has been asking, “how do you prepare for people who sneak in and aim to bring actions to violence?” It’s a yet unanswered question, but, as Vanessa said, “Are we going to back down and let it bother us to the point where we stop? No we’re not.” Vanessa’s spirit is a common one, as she knows: “A lot of people in this camp are willing to die for this cause. And if they want to make us martyrs by killing us, it’s Wounded Knee all over again.”

Another medic, Harrison Andrews, came to Standing Rock intending to stay for only a few days. This week is his seventh week on the job. Harrison’s love for the cause convinced him to stay for a few more days after his initial visit. But a week in, he had an experience that convinced him to stay indefinitely: he met a patient who had a broken hand, and accompanied him to the hospital as a patient advocate. When they arrived, the hospital refused to give the patient an X-ray because they didn’t have a technician. Harrison, an ER trauma nurse, “knew that wasn’t correct.” In this situation, “a hospital has two options—you either call in a tech or you provide transportation to a place that can do the X-ray.” The hospital refused to do either until Harrison “threw a huge hissy fit.” And even then, once they had run the X-ray, a doctor “flat out lied to the patient and said, I could give you Tramadol, but I can’t because it would have deadly interactions with the ibuprofen you already have.” That, Harrison said, “is a bald-faced lie.”

Harrison said this incident was one among many occurrences of malpractice at the Indian Health Services’ (IHS) hospital: “After seeing that and realizing that this camp’s medic tent was the primary healthcare for not only the people in this camp, but also people driving from the reservation to come here just because of the way they’re treated in IHS, I knew I had to stick around.” There’s a saying here about IHS: “Don’t get sick till June.” June is when IHS gets its annual funding and can briefly afford to treat patients better than normal.

As Harrison was telling me all this, I began to look around and see that, though there were a lot of volunteers around, there didn’t seem to be very many medics. I asked how many people were responsible for the whole camp’s healthcare. “Solid bottom liners, including herbalists, maybe eight.” I was incredulous—eight medics for a few thousand people? “We make it work,” he said.

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