United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
VA Reaching Out to Native American Veterans
group in front of statue
Members of the Wagner, S.D. community and VA community-based outpatient clinic who organized VA care for a Native American Veteran. Left to right: Harold Erickson, Sharon Haar, Marylou Morrow, Roy Farabee, Dr. Timothy O’Shea, Dennis Rucker, and Tom McHenry.
Photo by Wagner Post Editor Barb Pechous

In South Dakota, a small community of public servants — both local and federal — join forces to help a Veteran fight his final battle.

The 57-year-old Veteran, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, walked into the VA Community Based Outreach Clinic in Wagner, S.D., and announced he had lung cancer.

“He just showed up here one day,” said VA Nurse Manager Marylou Morrow, herself a Yankton Sioux. “He was an Army Veteran, and homeless, and he’d never tried to access VA health care before. He wasn’t in the system, so we went to work to get him registered.”

Team Effort

Murrow said she received valuable logistical help from Roy Farabee, the Veterans Service Officer for Charles Mix County; and Dennis Rucker, the Veterans Service Officer for the Yankton Sioux Tribe. “They helped me locate his discharge papers and other records,” she said. “It was a team effort.

“Then I sat down with the man,” she continued. “His name is Rudy. We filled out his paperwork together to get him registered with VA. He wouldn’t have been able to do it by himself.”

Clinic Coordinator Doug McCuddin said this kind of personalized attention is nothing unusual.

“This is everyday practice at our clinic,” he observed. “Marylou and the rest of our staff provide the same level of care to every Veteran who enters the clinic. We treat them like we’d treat members of our own family.”

Moving Fast

“By 10 o’clock the next morning, we found out Rudy was eligible for VA medical services,” Morrow said. “We contacted him that day. First, we had to phone a friend of his to find out where he was. Once we located him, we had someone from the federal Indian Health Service drive out to get him. They have a transport service.”

“All the different agencies out here work together,” said Timothy O’Shea, a physician at the VA clinic in Wagner. “It’s a small community, so we all know each other. We all wanted to do everything we could to help this Veteran who knew he was sick, and knew he could come to the VA and get help.”

From there things moved fast.

“Rudy arrived at our clinic around noon, and we got all his basic lab work done,” Morrow explained. “He was very agreeable. Our doctor gave him a complete physical and then contacted all the VA specialty services, like oncology and social services, which would need to be involved in Rudy’s treatment program.”

Just a Phone Call Away

Early the next day, Rudy was driven to the Sioux Falls VA Medical Center, more than 100 miles away. Who drove him? Sharon Haar, the mayor of Wagner (the little community of 1,700 where the VA clinic is located). Mayor Haar also happens to be a volunteer driver for the Disabled American Veterans transportation program as well as the VA clinic.

Rudy spent the next few days at the Sioux Falls VA undergoing tests. Rudy’s lung cancer was advanced — and not treatable.

“Our goal now is to make him comfortable,” Morrow said. “To keep his pain under control, to make sure he isn’t suffering. He’s staying with friends here in Wagner. Members of our Home-Based Primary Care Team, including a social worker, go out there to check on him.

“At some point he may need hospice care,” she continued. “We’ll make sure he gets that when the time comes.”

Morrow, who’s worked 20 years for VA, said the dying Veteran knows she’s just a phone call away.

“Rudy contacted me the other day and said he’s afraid of his medicine,” she reported. “He’s never been on medicine before. So we discussed his prescriptions, and I gave him some specific instructions. For example, I told him he could take one pill, not two. I told him it was OK to start out slow. I think that made him feel better.”

She added: “He knows we’re here for him.”