The son of missionaries, he grew up in the Congo and was shot by the same insurgents who killed his father, forcing the rest of his family to flee. He became a doctor and a surgeon, but instead of pursing a lucrative career at a fancy hospital, he went back to Africa and tended to the people he loved for another 15 years before being forced by violence to flee again.
Now, Dr. Ken McMillan is the surgeon in the basement, providing basic medical care, counseling and advice to homeless American Indians in a windowless room equipped with a scale bought at a secondhand store, and a pile of donated bandages and cold remedies.
Sometimes, the small cluttered office goes from a walk-in clinic to a “stagger-in clinic,” McMillan said, because some of his patients are still buzzed from the night before. But McMillan said he considers himself fortunate because clients are given a hot shower before they see him.
“My patients are squeaky clean,” he said.
Shortly after he returned from what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, McMillan was hired by Gordon Thayer, working at the time for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to find solutions to homelessness among Indians in the Twin Cities. During the early 1990s, 55 homeless, chronic alcoholic Indians had died on the streets. So the American Indian Development Corporation built a permanent home for that demographic, an apartment building just off Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis called Anishinabe Wakiagun — The People’s Home in Ojibwe.
While the facility discourages drinking and provides residents help, it doesn’t require them to be sober in order to keep a warm place to live. The goal is to provide chronic alcoholics with a safe home while minimizing the negative consequences of their behavior and cutting the cost of services.
McMillan’s office for his Kola (the Lakota word for “friend”) Project is just off a community room with a television and pool table. It doesn’t feature the usual charts of the human body, but rather photos of the doctor’s family and pictures of wild animals that remind McMillan of his time in Africa.
McMillan’s bicycle was jammed into a corner until summer. He once used it to find secluded homeless camps so he could treat patients, but now finds that too many of them are sick enough that he has to transport them to a hospital or to detox in a van.
“The fact that we went out on foot or on bikes shows somebody cares about them,” said McMillan. “It was a way to build trust. …
“I’m kind of the head sheepdog here,” he said. “I nip at the heels of patients to get them medical help, or into housing. Our main duty is to see them when they are in urgent condition.”
That means testing for diseases, checking blood pressure and weight, caring for wounds, urging them to stay on their medicines and helping them get treated for mental health problems. Because few of the patients have homes, the Kola Project keeps extensive medical files for them. There are no appointments, and no copays. Since the program started, McMillan said he has seen “dramatic improvement in housing and alcohol use,” but abuse of prescription medications and heroin has risen.
Many of the homeless patients feel they have been mistreated and overlooked when they have arrived in other clinics or emergency rooms. “We don’t profile them by how they look, or if they’ve been drinking,” McMillan said. “We treat them as humans, as natives. We try not to punish them or discipline them. Trust goes a long way because then they will listen to their options.”
McMillan believes the tragedies he survived in the Congo prepared him to deal with and empathize with homeless Indians. During the rebellion that killed his father and left him wounded, insurgents held him captive for a month, until his family was rescued by Belgian paratroopers. A spiritual man, McMillan believes he survived for a reason.
“I think God gave me that so I could go back [to the Congo] and help people,” McMillan said.
When Thayer decided to hire McMillan as physician for the Kola Project, he told him, “It sounds like you have seen a lot of trauma, and you can share that with native patients.”
McMillan sees a lot of similarities between working with the poor in Africa and the homeless here, but the biggest is the mind-set of the patients.
“The thing that is most similar is spirituality,” he said. “They both share this idea that they have a creator and that they have a reason for living.”
Asked if the ongoing magnitude of the problems weigh on him, McMillan said he has been “discouraged to tears. The recidivism I see is depressing, but I treat it the same way I do any disease. It’s a destructive force, often out of their control, so why should I expect anything different?
“In the end I feel blessed,” he said. “God’s given me a lot. I’ve always felt a need to share that.”