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White Earth ready to open new diabetes dialysis center

The White Earth Reservation recently opened a new Kidney Dialysis/Diabetes Center in White Earth. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

It’s been a dream of many for a long time — the opening of a new kidney dialysis unit on the White Earth Reservation.

The grand opening last week was what many there call a “dream come true,” and here’s why:

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

Compared to the rest of the country where the Centers for Disease Control shows 8.3 percent of the population is diagnosed with either Type I or Type II diabetes, 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, it’s been a long trek for treatment for those on the reservation needing kidney dialysis.

It’s usually a three-day, all-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,” said Butler, who says some of them spend 30 hours a week getting care. “It’s hard, and it takes up a lot of their lives.”

Four years ago is when health officials on the reservation began planting the seeds for this 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 USDA and the Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Mystic Lake, as well as some White Earth tribal dollars.

The project is collaboration between the White Earth Reservation, which provided the actual facility, and Sanford Health, which is providing all of the dialysis equipment as well as the trained staff.

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

“It’s 12,000 square feet,” said Eric Ellegaard, project superintendent, who says 16 different trades from the reservation to all over the country worked on the project that was slowed a bit by the rough winter.

“But now, everybody is really happy… really impressed with it,” said Ellegaard.

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 hard-structure cubicles have windows and doors, as well as individual lighting, making them more like little offices.

This is easing crowding at the Tribal Health Office, which had roughly 200 employees in what they say was a space that was much too small.

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

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

On the day the new unit opened on April 7, they treated their 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 department still needs to come in and do a survey of the facility before it’s approved for patients to use it.

Once that happens, officials expect a significant demand on the new unit’s services.

Currently there are roughly 15 people that Butler knows of traveling to Detroit Lakes to get treatments, which right away will fill most of the seats much of the time.

The kidney dialysis center will be offering services three times a week, rotating from Monday, Wednesday, Friday to Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.

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

“So the clients already know them, and so that continuity of care will come with them,” said Butler, “…which is good because clients get very attached and nurses do too, so it really helps in that relationship.”

Butler says this 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 there.

Ample water supply is critical for kidney dialysis centers, as patients require hundreds of gallons of water 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 says the water essentially helps filter and clean the blood of people whose kidneys are failing from diabetes.

Although Butler says the end-goal is for people to become more educated on diabetes and more physically fit so that they do not need their services, she knows the reality and is just 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.”