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Native Education Health Initiative working to break diabetes cycle

In 2003, the Oneida Nation of New York began sponsoring a golf tournament
to benefit the Native Education Health Initiative. This year was no
exception, and $35,000 was raised for this nonprofit organization that is
dedicated to helping Indian country achieve optimal wellness.

The right to obtain quality health care -- and to be provided with the
information to follow through with health providers' recommendations -- is
a birthright of everyone, and NEHI is striving to ensure Indian people are
not left behind in this quest. And step by step, NEHI is succeeding.

As a member of NEHI's board of directors, I am proud of the work the
organization is doing across the country. Recently, I learned of a
particularly poignant story about how NEHI has positively altered the life
of a man from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

A diabetic since 1993, Roy Yargee detected a blister on his foot last year
that proved providential. The blister began to spread across his foot and
after an examination it was determined by one doctor that his foot should
be amputated. Seeking a second opinion, Yargee learned that three of his
arteries were blocked, preventing blood flow to his foot. A vein graft was
performed, saving his foot; but his toes were too damaged and had to be
amputated.

Now that he had lost his toes, Yargee was ready to change his lifestyle and
prevent further loss of limb. Although he had been told with his initial
diagnosis as a diabetic to monitor his diet and to exercise regularly,
Yargee admitted he wasn't sure how to go about making these changes. So, he
continued to eat fried and other unhealthy foods with little to no
exercise.

Enter NEHI. At an information meeting held at his community, Yargee learned
about NEHI and the programs it offered. Through NEHI, Yargee attended an
18-day health restoration program at the Lifestyle Center of America.
Located in Sulphur, Okla., the center teaches life skills that stress
healthy eating and exercise, which in turn promote good health.

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Yargee credits the experience at the Lifestyle Center with turning his life
around and giving him hope that diabetes will have less of a chance of
ravaging his body. Following his stint at the center, Yargee is armed with
the necessary tools to control his disease. He said he was even taught to
prepare his favorite foods in a healthy manner and has incorporated a one-
to two-mile walk into his day. As a result, his blood sugar levels have
dropped considerably.

As we all know, diabetes is rampant in Indian country. According to the
American Diabetes Association, more than 107,000 American Indians and
Alaska Natives have the illness. Put another way, 14.5 percent of the
people receiving care from IHS have diabetes.

Think about those numbers. Now think about all of your family members,
neighbors and friends who have been stricken by the disease. Diabetes is
decimating Indian communities. The complications the disease can cause, if
not properly treated, are mind-boggling and include blindness, kidney and
heart diseases, stroke and, as Yargee sadly discovered, amputations.

But these grim facts need not continue to plague our people. Through the
efforts of organizations like NEHI, we are battling this enemy and, with
diligence, we will conquer the disease and free our population from its
scars.

Through scholarships offered by NEHI, Indian students are now in medical
school and will return to their homes to become the first line of defense
against the many health problems riddling our people. Through diabetic
clinics, NEHI offers hope and encouragement to those who have been
diagnosed with the disease, helping them live life to their full potential
while stemming the toll of their illness.

While great strides are being made through the efforts of NEHI, we must not
let down our guard. It is vital to continue to support this laudable
organization. Many long, hard years of poverty and deprivation have brought
Indian people the inheritance of diseases like diabetes. Let us pull
together to reverse this tide and provide a healthier legacy for the faces
yet unborn.

Keller George, a Wolf Clan representative of the Oneida Nation Men's
Council, is president of the United South and Eastern Tribes.