Healing her tribe

American Indian DO shares insights on working with Cherokee Nation patients

As a girl in rural Oklahoma, Amanda Bighorse, DO, knew she wanted to help treat those in medically underserved communities like the one she grew up in.

For Amanda Bighorse, DO, being named medical director of Vinita Health Center in Vinita, Oklahoma, was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Ever since she was a little girl in rural Oklahoma, Dr. Bighorse knew she wanted to be a doctor. Growing up listening to her grandmother share stories of her father, who was a medicine man, and then watching her own father suffer through a fatal leukemia diagnosis, only served to strengthen her resolve to pursue a career in which she could help others heal.

Amanda Bighorse, DO

In March, seven years after graduating from medical school at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OSU-COM), Dr. Bighorse was named medical director of Vinita Health Center, which is the second largest center in the Cherokee Nation health care system, the largest tribal health system in the U.S.

Cherokee Nation manages eight tribal health centers and W.W. Hastings Hospital, all in northeast Oklahoma, which is also home to the capital of the Cherokee Nation.

Traditional versus modern-day

For Dr. Bighorse, the confluence of native medicine and osteopathic medicine made sense. Both philosophies believe that everything is connected, and that finding balance with health and wellness is imperative, says Dr. Bighorse. Though sometimes finding a balance between old and new–traditional Cherokee healing and modern health care–can be a challenge for those serving the native population.

“The elders may speak only Cherokee, or mostly Cherokee,” says Dr. Bighorse, who is part of the Cherokee and Osage tribes. “They might come to us for treatment, but sometimes they decide not to take their prescribed medication, or they mix it with traditional remedies. The key is to respect their traditions and work within those boundaries to find ways to incorporate both old and new.”

Tribal health care disparities

The estimated 3.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S. have long experienced lower health status when compared with other Americans, according to the Indian Health Service (IHS). Shorter life expectancy and greater disease burdens exist likely due to cultural differences, inadequate health education, disproportionate poverty and discrimination in the delivery of health services, according to IHS.

For Dr. Bighorse, treating the native population and its specific needs is a privilege.

“It really is an honor to develop a relationship with a patient that trusts you with information about their life that they wouldn’t otherwise share. It’s a role I take seriously,” she says.

More reading on Native American health:

In Anchorage, DO dedicates career to Alaska Native health

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