Building healthy blood

New tribal health center goes after diabetes

Dietitian Stacy Briscoe talks with a patient at the new Reno Sparks Tribal Health Center.

Dietitian Stacy Briscoe talks with a patient at the new Reno Sparks Tribal Health Center.


An airy lobby with that aromatic new-building scent and a large suspended basket gourd hanging overhead greet patients as they walk in. Those waiting for their appointments can read the history of the Washo tribe, which is displayed in the lobby. Another piece of art hanging at the back of the hallway is an eagle soaring around its nest. The dynamic scene can be viewed from the first or second floor. A mix of empty and filled glass displays line the hallway. These small cubes exhibit pieces of Native American culture and juxtapose the newness of the building with the history of the tribes.

Except for the patients, the new Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center looks more like an art gallery than a medical facility. It’s an altogether congenial facility when you consider it’s an outpost on the frontlines of a killer of Native Americans: Diabetes.

According to a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation study, diabetes affects one in eight Native Americans. The number of Native Americans who suffer from Type 2 Diabetes is twice as much as any other ethnicity, except African-American.

As part of a current local RSTHC campaign, a fact sheet was distributed containing these figures: “The local Reno community of Native Americans includes approximately 5,500 individuals. Five hundred are identified as diabetic. Five thousand are at risk.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found a nearly 30 percent increase in diabetes diagnoses among Native American and Alaskan tribal populations between 1990 and 1997. It is being handled as an epidemic among Native Americans because diabetes complications are a rising cause of death in tribes. Type 2, or adult-onset diabetes, is also being detected in growing numbers among Native American youth.

This elevated risk is so great that Congress has issued a specific grant to Native American reservations to fund projects that educate and help prevent Type 2 Diabetes. Passed in 1997, the Special Diabetes Program for Indians provided federal grants. Four hundred tribal centers take advantage of the $150 million a year grant, including the RSTHC.

To make use of this yearly funding, the center for the past decade has hosted annual events. This year’s program is known as the Diabetes Prevention Challenge, which hosts events such as educational seminars, fun runs and cooking classes. A 100-mile walking program is also in place and prizes donated by local business are given out to the most physically active. So far this year, 1308 members have taken advantage of this program.

“The leading cause of diabetes is inactivity,” said RSTHC diabetes program supervisor Nancy Townzen. “These programs are created so we can either prevent or help manage the disease. Having all these events gets people involved.”

When an individual signs up for the program they can go to sessions with Townzen, counseling sessions with a nutritionist, lab screenings and have access to the gym inside the center while being assisted by personal trainers.

“It’s a total lifestyle change,” said Stacy Briscoe, the program’s registered dietitian. “We spend over a year to help increase activity level and change eating habits.”

While this particular walking program only lasts through September, every year a new one is created so that fit activity becomes a year-round habit.

The RSTHC will use its new facility by hosting more events and programs that take advantage of the increased space. More barbecues, fun runs and festivals are expected to occur on it and its neighboring tribal lands, which follow a portion of the Truckee River.

About the Center

The new health center building plays a big role in the campaign to improve the health of native people.

“The best part is that we don’t have to sit on top of one another to do our jobs,” said Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center building director Elvin Willie. The building is wedged between the Truckee River and the urban industrial district surrounding it at 1715 Kuenzli Lane. Its most obvious peculiarities are its foliage, most of which is edible, and its unusual shape. If viewed from above, it resembles an eagle.

The building has been a welcome change for its staff of 80. Until a few years ago, the health center was on Mill Street and was only a fraction of the new size. The space grew from 13,000 square feet to 65,000.

The old building opened in the 1970s and until June 2008 suffered such problems as bad roofing, patched electrical systems and overcrowding for both doctors and patients (“Caring facility,” RN&R, July 7, 2005). The new building not only has added space, but culture, as well.

The building’s concept and design were created by AmerINDIAN Architecture, which wanted to represent the three main tribes located in the Reno-Sparks community. This is also found on the three columns of the building, as a pine nut, a willow tree and rabbit ears painted on each to designate the Washo, Paiute and Shoshone tribes. (Pine nuts were a staple of the tribal diet before the arrival of whites.)

The Truckee River flows by with a gentle commotion around the back of the building. A walking path allows visitors to exercise a bit while being shaded by the numerous trees lining the trail. Outdoor events, such as picnics and festivals, take place on a spacious concrete area nearby.

The ambiance is just icing on the cake for the staff.

“With all this added space, we’re thinking of new services to offer in our unused rooms,” said Willie. “And right now, we’re working to ramp up our staff.”

The staff includes dentists, optometrists, pediatricians, dietitians, doctors, nurses, counselors, psychiatrists and personal trainers. The group can provide care for the estimated 8,000 Reno-Sparks residents who are eligible at the Indian Health Service. Of the 8,000, only half take advantage of the center.

There are some 50,000 appointments a year, and anyone in the country eligible for IHS who has insurance is able to use its services. It’s not uncommon for people from as far away as Oregon to travel to the center.

“Urban Indians that move from South Dakota or Oklahoma still visit here,” said Willie. “They don’t necessarily need to be a member of a local tribe.”