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New White Earth dialysis center will allow treatment close to home

WHITE EARTH, Minn. – The opening of a new kidney dialysis unit this month on the White Earth Indian Reservation is what many here call a dream come true.

Diabetes isn't just another disease on White Earth – it's a huge, deadly problem.

In the rest of the country, 8.3 percent of the population is diagnosed with either Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

White Earth's statistics dwarf that.

"We have 1,105 active diabetics in the Diabetes Registry – that's about 35 percent of our local population," said Pat Butler, health director for White Earth, "and those numbers are low because they're from the Indian Health Service, and not everybody (on the reservation) goes to IHS."

For many years, people on the reservation needing kidney dialysis have faced a long trek for treatment. It's usually a three-day process that ends up consuming people's lives.

"Most of them get treatment in Detroit Lakes, so they have to find a ride, there's travel time there, at least four hours or more for the treatment, then travel back again," Butler said. "It's hard, and it takes up a lot of their lives."

Four years ago, health officials on the reservation began planting the seeds for the new kidney dialysis unit that was built onto the old tribal headquarters building in the town of White Earth.

Funding for the $2.5 million structure was secured through grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Mystic Lake, as well as some White Earth tribal dollars.

It is a collaborative project between the reservation, which provided the facility, and Sanford Health, which is providing all of the dialysis equipment and the trained staff.

The new 12,000-square-foot center includes the kidney dialysis unit with eight stations, an exam area, a fitness facility and a nursing station.

Significant demand

Twenty-five nurses, most of whom were previously crammed into the adjoining Tribal Health offices, are now settling into their own cubicles built into the new facility.

The new fitness facility has four elliptical machines, four treadmills, four bikes, eight strength training machines, free weights, benches and TheraBands, along with group fitness classes.

"And it's free and open to the public," Butler said, "so our goal is to get more people using that and less people using the dialysis unit."

On the day the new unit opened, April 7, the staff treated its first patient.

"And so far, we only have that one patient because we are going to be Medicare-approved," said Butler, adding that the state still must survey the facility before it's approved for patients.

Once that happens, officials expect a significant demand.

Butler knows of about 15 people who currently travel to Detroit Lakes to get treatments. Those people right away will fill most of the seats much of the time.

The kidney dialysis center will offer services three times a week.

Sanford employees will run those operations with some of the same staff from Detroit Lakes that the patients have already been seeing.

"So the clients already know them, and so that continuity of care will come with them," Butler said.

Water supply critical

Butler said the location in White Earth was chosen because there were already large water pipes in the ground that were used in an old fitness facility that was torn down.

Ample water supply is critical for kidney dialysis centers, as patients require hundreds of gallons per week. This one houses what is called a "water room," where city water is pulled in and transformed into life-saving liquid.

"It's a pretty sophisticated reverse osmosis system," said Tiffaney Holm, a registered nurse who is also the clinical supervisor for the White Earth dialysis center. "It takes the hard, city water, conditions it, softens it, and then it goes through our RO system before going to our patients."

From there, Holm said, the water essentially helps filter and clean the blood of people whose kidneys are failing from diabetes.

Although Butler said the end goal is for people to become more educated on diabetes and more physically fit so they don't need such services, she knows the reality and is happy that, at least now, patients can get care close to home.

"It's a proud time for the White Earth nation," she said. "It's taken many people a lot of time commitment and vision to get to this point."


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