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Working towards new dialysis unit

People needing kidney dialysis on the White Earth Reservation will soon have help in their own backyard.

A new dialysis unit is set to be built as part of an addition planned for the health building just outside of the town of White Earth.

Health experts on the reservation say this is a much-needed project, as patients there have always had to travel to Detroit Lakes, Bemidji or Fargo to receive dialysis.

"And that's such a big commitment because each treatment takes between six to eight hours and sometimes has to be done every other day," said Pat Butler, who is health director for the Reservation.

Construction on the dialysis center, which is part of an 11,825 square foot addition that will include a diabetes-fitness center and a clinical area, is expected to begin in the spring with a projected completion sometime in the middle of 2014.

White Earth officials declined to say how much the new addition is expected to cost, citing the fact that they have not awarded construction bids yet.

However, Sanford Health is collaborating with the reservation in helping to get the center off on the right foot.

Butler says the reservation will provide the funds for the building, which is being paid for partially through grants and partially through local dollars, and Sanford will then provide the dialysis equipment and staff.

"Sanford will still own all of the equipment and employees will be Sanford's, but White Earth would one day like to be the proprietor of that service," said Butler. "It's a very expensive process to get started because the dialysis equipment is very expensive."

Sanford Dialysis Director Maria Regnier says because kidney dialysis is so unique and heavily regulated, it's important to get this new facility and its staff not just up to standard, but up to Sanford's standard.

"The Detroit Lakes unit is a five-diamond facility, which they have to go through a process to achieve a status that defines them as one of the safest dialysis units in the country," said Regnier, adding that that distinction runs throughout the Sanford system. "And so we hope to bring that same sort of service to White Earth as we stay there for the first few years and get them really well trained."

The plans are for six dialysis chairs to be set up in the new facility, with the space and option to expand to eight if necessary.

And according to Butler, that's not unrealistic, as kidney-harming diseases such as diabetes not only continue to be a big health problem for Native Americans, but a growing one.

Statistics from White Earth show 30 percent of the reservation's population currently has diabetes and another 40 percent have metabolic syndrome, which "is a cluster of conditions -- increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist or abnormal cholesterol levels -- that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes," said Butler, who says diabetes is growing by about two to three percent every year.

And while she also says health officials are doing what they can to educate reservation residents on the dangers of diabetes, the reality remains that there is a very big need for a dialysis center that needs to be addressed as both patients and their family and friends continue to drive several hours a week.

"With a chronic illness, it can be very overwhelming and especially when resources are sparse -- I know occasionally the decision is made to skip out on treatment, which can be a very big health threat for them," said Butler.

But it's still too early to determine how many patients will benefit from the new facility, as Regnier says not only is it tough to tell who will stick with their current dialysis unit, but they will also need to get Medicare certified, which could take time once they open.

But in the meantime, Butler says the collaboration with Sanford is an excellent starting point to providing some much-needed service on White Earth.