CAREERS IN NURSING
RETURN TO ROOTS MEANS LIFE SAVING CARE: OKC INDIAN CLINIC
by Traci Chapman – staff writer/photographer
For Stephanie Harris, choosing a nursing position at Oklahoma City Indian Clinic was all about honoring her heritage and how much it is a part of everything she’s done.
“I wanted to get back to why I became a nurse,” Harris said. “I watched my grandmother and how important our heritage was, how much that was a part of who she was and everything she did, and I wanted to honor that and reach back into my native roots.”
Harris didn’t begin at OKC Indian Clinic. First, she began working as a nurse at Oklahoma City Public Schools. For two years, she tended to students’ everyday health issues and challenges. It was something she said she enjoyed, but it just didn’t fulfill what she wanted to do in her nursing career, she said.
“I think a lot of people don’t really know what school nursing is all about – it’s not like you’re sitting there waiting to put a band aid on a student or calling their parents because they have a fever,” Harris said. “You really are monitoring what can be life-threatening conditions, and there’s a lot of education that goes into it, too.”
But, that still didn’t fulfill the vision Harris had for her career. Then, one day, the young nurse learned of a position that was everything she’d dreamed of – something that could help people in what she felt was a significant way, while honoring her own native heritage.
That job was as a public health breast care case manager at Oklahoma City Indian Clinic. Working to assist women with mammograms was only the start of what she did.
“A lot of it is about educations, to encourage women to get screenings, to let them know how important it is to follow through with that,” Harris said. “Our goal is to have 1,400 women a year get a mammogram.”
That’s more challenging than it might sound – and it takes Harris’s nursing far beyond anything she ever expected, she said.
“There is a ton of outreach – we do things like going to health fairs, we work with the Indian Alliance for education and resources, and we have a grant through Avon’s Pink Glory program,” Harris said.
Pink Glory is a $48,000 grant awarded to the Central Oklahoma American Indian Health Council Inc. – which oversees Oklahoma City Indian Clinic. The grant is part of a massive breast health outreach effort by Avon, which provides millions of dollars in grants to help fund breast cancer research, prevention and education.
“It’s an invaluable resource for us,” Harris said. “It allows us to do so much to make sure Native American women are taking care of their health – and this is certainly one of the most important things they need to take care of.”
Harris and her fellow committee members meet monthly, brainstorming on ways to improve and expand their efforts, not only in breast screenings, but also in other health issues. Recently, a major focus for Harris and the group is colorectal cancer screenings, she said.
“The Native American population has a higher incidence of colorectal cancer, and we encounter multiple late-stage patients who are finally diagnosed at the emergency room,” Harris said. “We are working to really increase prevention or, at least, early detection, to we are working to increase knowledge about home testing, when possible, or colonoscopies.”
Unfortunately, Harris said many people are resistant to this type of screening, for some reason. Close to 3,000 OKC Indian Clinic patients at any one time are aged 50 to 75 and are due – or overdue – for a colonoscopy or home colorectal cancer test.
“This is an area where we’re really looking to increase awareness, where we really can make a difference,” Harris said. “It’s all about patient interaction, getting to know the patients.
“They get so they consider us their medical home,” she said. “It’s so nice to see them, to know they’re doing what they need to do to keep themselves healthy, and I think they really appreciate having us there for them.”
Like with breast screenings, colorectal cancer prevention entails a lot of work outside the clinic – working to get people in for needed screenings, Harris said.
“We work with them not only to get screened, but also afterwards, and when there’s a patient who does have cancer, we work to get them into support groups and set them up with an oncology case manager, once they’re diagnosed,” she said. “So many people in their 50’s have never been screened before – that’s an opportunity.”
That kind of opportunity, that kind of difference is why Harris became a nurse, she said.
“Being able to help people in a positive way, almost every day – well, that’s what it’s all about,” Harris said.