Aida Winona Strom walked into a hospital room at Hennepin County Medical Center recently and faced an unhappy patient.
“I want the other advocate,” the man told her. “The guy with the glasses.”
Strom, HCMC’s American Indian patient advocate, calls the slight “awesome.”
“I loved it,” she said, and meant it.
That’s because Strom, 37, recruited the guy with the glasses — University of Minnesota nursing student Frank Johnson Jr. — as well as five other nursing and social work students from the U and Augsburg College.
With school out for the summer, the six volunteer patient advocates have just wrapped up a one-year pilot program at HCMC that is improving the health outcomes of American Indian patients there. These patients’ medical conditions often are long-standing and complex, from kidney failure to diabetes to a new and alarming increase in opiate abuse, particularly among American Indian women.
The students, all American Indians, spent up to six hours a week from October to May moving from room to room, sitting with patients to hear their medical concerns, but also connecting on a personal level.
“Just listening to somebody’s story is so beautiful,” said Strom, who noted that the students do not have access to patients’ medical records.
“Being a presence, specifically with Indian people who feel so not a part of the system, is phenomenal. These patients want to see an Indian face.”
Johnson agrees. “People just get a sense of ease when they see me,” said Johnson, 32, a member of the White Earth Nation.
“People often will give me important information that they might otherwise withhold from other people. I can be a voice for them.”
The students’ presence has, in fact, translated into a decrease in patient complaints and quicker connections to appropriate treatments. A faster return to health can lead to significant cost savings.
The volunteer outreach also has provided practical help to Strom, who has worked until now largely on her own. She laughs at the notion that her position was designed as part-time.
“We still have an average of, like, 80 new Indian patients a month,” she said. “That’s inpatient, including psych. It’s a lot on the plate.”
Four years ago, Strom was named HCMC’s American Indian patient advocate, one of only a handful in the country. Her challenge: To build trust with the hospital’s growing number of American Indian patients and help them make good medical decisions.
The work has been rewarding, but she’s been itching to move “more upstream,” to get out of the hospital and into the community to educate and collaborate with tribes and various Indian Health Service programs.
In January 2012, Strom was awarded a two-year, $52,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Health that allowed her to increase her hours and travel around the state and beyond. The grant, from the department’s rural health and primary-care fund, “provides an opportunity to build some trust with the tribes and streamline what happens when patients come here,” Strom said. “So much can be owed if we don’t pay attention.”
This summer will be “super-busy,” as she visits Red Lake, Mille Lacs, Fond du Lac, White Earth and Sisseton, among other reservations, to discuss strategies to improve the mental and physical health of those in her community. Strom, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate of South Dakota.
Before broadening her reach, Strom made sure that the essential inroads she’d made at HCMC would continue. She selected the six students from a larger pool of candidates, many of whom dropped out during the training process. While required to give three hours a week, many gave five or six hours, she said, sometimes creating dream catchers with patients or reading books with them.
From their assessments, Strom is better able to advocate for patients, contact family members and Indian resources, and develop comprehensive medical plans.
Johnson, she said, was a natural for the program. “Frank shadowed me once,” she said, “and I was like, ‘Go!’ ”
Johnson treasured most the opportunity to tell patients about HCMC’s spiritual care department, “where they can do traditional spiritual healing in their room. Most patients had no clue that that even existed.”
The impact can be powerful. Johnson remembers one patient who had been in a car crash. “After a spiritual healing, the doctors told him they were amazed by how quickly he was recovering.”
He will continue to volunteer over the summer, then eventually attend graduate school. He hopes to become a nurse practitioner with Indian Health Service.
Strom is confident that all of her volunteers will take their energy and enthusiasm into lives as professional caregivers. “This program,” Strom said, “is under the umbrella of a big social-change movement.”