Native doctor helps Heart Butte community

Mary Desrosier serves one of nation's poorest towns


Dr. Mary Desrosier cradled four-week-old Scottie Lynn Day Rider in her arms, rocking her gently and cooing in her ear.

A beaded stethoscope dangled from her neck, and with the tiny baby sleeping in her arms, Desrosier looked as if the baby could have been her own. With eight children, she has the experience. But this baby is not Desrosier's. The infant, born prematurely, is one of Desrosier's patients at the Heart Butte, Mont., medical clinic, a state-of-the art facility on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Desrosier left the Blackfeet Indian Reservation after graduating from Browning High School and came back a doctor — the first woman ever from the Blackfeet tribe to become a doctor. She is now the only doctor at the Heart Butte medical clinic, where she serves the community's 1,000 or so residents. The clinic is operated by Indian Health Services, a division of the federal government. Medical services are free to tribal members and their descendants.

Desrosier, a tall woman with long black hair, has been back on the reservation as a doctor for 5 1/2 years — time enough to see the ravages of the reservation's killers. They come in the form of cancer and diabetes, but mostly alcohol-related car wrecks. Coming from the reservation, she knows her patients' grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters and children. She hasn't gotten used to breaking tough news to those friends and family members. "That's been one of the hardest things about coming home ... having to tell someone we couldn't save their husband, or child, or that they have cancer and it's advanced."

But as the only doctor in town the job she does is a vital one.  The next nearest one is 30 miles away in Browning, where Desrosier does weekend stints in the state's second-busiest emergency room. It's here that the maladies — social and medical — hit home for Desrosier. She remembers one year when there were 12 fatalities brought in to the ER, all of them victims of drinking and driving. That's when she and her colleagues went on a rampage of their own, marching down city streets and pleading to the town members at high school assemblies to stop the madness of drunk driving. The push to stop drinking and driving has helped, but the coroner calls and Life Flight helicopters still come in.

Everything that Desrosier has done in her life has brought her to this point as a tribal doctor. From the time she graduated from Browning high school to enter undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, Desrosier knew she would come back to the reservation. She received her medical degree from the University of North Dakota. "It's home, it's the mountains, it's family," she says of the things that drew her back. "I left with the idea that I would come back and do this. I just set about and did it."

Not long after coming back to the reservation Desrosier received her formal Indian name: Medicine Victory Woman. 

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation, while located in one of the most beautiful places in the world at the foothills of the northern Rocky Mountains, is also one of the nation's poorest. Out of 3,192 counties listed in a 1997 Census Bureau report, Montana had three among the top 100 with the worst poverty rates. Glacier County, where much of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is located, ranked 35th out of 3,192 with 33 percent of its residents living in poverty.

According to the census, the Heart Butte school district 30 miles away was among the 100 worst districts in the nation, with 64 percent of its children living in poverty. 
Obviously, Desrosier has her work cut out for her. Much of the sickness Desrosier deals with is poverty-related. People can't afford good food like fresh fruits and vegetables, so their health suffers. "The education just isn't there, and the finances aren't there for healthy food choices," she said. "Pop is cheaper than juice, so people will drink pop."

She works on education and preventive medicine to help reduce the incidence of diabetes and heart disease, all ailments that are fairly common within the tribe.
Heart Butte priest Dan Powers describes the ravages of diabetes has caused most recently: one man lost both legs to amputation, and a married couple each lost a leg to the disease recently. Some think that the high rate of diabetes on the reservation is caused by a changing diet for the Native Americans. After being taken off of buffalo and put on government rations, their bodies failed to adapt to the changing nutrition. The malady has been passed down through the generations.

Even as the first female Blackfeet Indian to become a doctor, Desrosier's priority is with her family — eight kids, herself and her husband. 

"My kids are what keep me sane," she said. "When I go home and have seven or eight kids running up to me wanting a hug or attention, I have to leave my work at the door. That really keeps me sane."

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