Caring facility

A growing Reno-Sparks Indian Colony prepares for a larger health clinic

Nurse Francis Shaw examines patient Nettie Velasquez at the Reno Indian Colony’s health clinic, which will soon be moving to new quarters.

Nurse Francis Shaw examines patient Nettie Velasquez at the Reno Indian Colony’s health clinic, which will soon be moving to new quarters.

Photo By David Robert

On the north side of Mill Street between Kietzke and the freeway overpass, there is a smoke shop. It’s at the corner of Mill and Reservation Road. Reservation is the Main Street of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

At the end of Reservation Road sits the Tribal Health Center. It’s the clinic that serves the 8,000 residents of the Colony and the larger Truckee Meadows community. It often serves Native Americans driving in from areas as close as Fallon and as far as Winnemucca, Susanville and tiny McDermitt, 240 miles from Reno on the Nevada-Oregon border.

“They come in a van one day, and they are seen,” said Marge Dressler, nurse supervisor for the health center, “and they all go home in the evening, especially for specialty clinics, like audiology and cardiology.”

Opened in the 1970s, the center has grown until there’s nowhere to expand but up. A few years ago, planning began for a new clinic, one with far more space and the facilities to deal with the overcrowding. Right now, doctors are three to an office, while 3-by-5 foot closets have become medical supply rooms and triage units.

The new center is slated to open by spring of 2007. It will be at 10 Giroux St., across Kietzke Lane about two-thirds of a mile from the colony. Sitting on the river, the center will expand from the current facility’s 15,000 square feet to 65,000.

“Over the years, they’ve added on and added on and added on,” Dressler said. She’s watched the overcrowding grow during her 12 years working at the clinic. “And now we’re patching. Our roof is not good. Our electrical systems are patched together. And so we constantly go in and fix what we can to keep things right. By having a new clinic, it’s just going to be wonderful for the patients and the staff that work here.”

The new facility was designed by a national architectural firm known for medical-facility development, with AmerINDIAN Architecture of St. Paul, Minn., for cultural input. The clinic is designed in the form of an eagle with a glass front facing north along the Truckee River. The glass forms the wings of the eagle on two wings of the building. Other testaments to traditional art forms in the facility will honor the three tribes that comprise the colony—Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is pursuing funding for construction, which will be put out to bid following federal guidelines. Gloria Macdonald, chief financial officer for the colony, estimates the cost at $13 million—but that figure won’t be final until a construction bid is accepted. The colony hopes to fund the loan to build the new clinic with a tax-exempt bond.

The new health center seems to contradict what the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony represents to casual observers of the main revenue for the community—its five smoke shops.

“We’re diversifying from that,” Colony Chairman Arlen Melendez noted. He listed the Mercedes dealership the colony opened in south Reno and the Wal-Mart planned on tribal lands north of the Reno Hilton across Second Street. “We’re moving in a better direction.”

Currently, the 78 employees at the health center on Reservation Road include four physicians, six nurses and two medical assistants. Specialist doctors visit the center every few months. Patients must often schedule appointments months in advance for their heart, hearing, eye and allergy problems, to name a few.

The same goes for surgery, except emergency operations, which must be performed locally at one of the area’s public hospitals. The cost gets passed along to the health center, which provides most of its services free of charge to Native Americans through the federally funded Indian Health Services.

The new clinic will have space to retain more medical staff, which should decrease the need to schedule so many appointments months in advance.

Anticipation for the new clinic and shorter waits is high among patients and staff at the current health center. Dressler said the clinic now treats 900 to 1,000 patients a month, with growth in the last three years averaging 40 to 50 new patients each month.

Eugene Sampson shows frustration in his voice when he speaks of current conditions at the clinic. He’s been going there since it opened three decades ago.

“Some people are sitting around waiting two hours or more and sometimes all day just to get their medicine,” he said between coughs.

The staff also will be able to provide better care through expanded numbers of rooms. The number of medical exam rooms will increase from 11 to 15, the dental chairs from four to 10. And Sampson should receive faster service in the expanded pharmacy.

In the expanded clinic, doctors and nurses will be able to move filing cabinets out from under desks and from the middle of office walkways. There will also be room to take in the beauty of the open air in the lobby and waiting rooms. The model and renderings of the new center show hanging basket gourds and other Native American art. There’s space to walk and move around in offices and medical supply closets without bumping into desks and other staff members.

And there’s the river to complement the new center. The staff takes walks during breaks on the grounds of the current clinic, business office manager Veronica Patterson said. Last week, those grounds were covered with brittle, short blades of yellowing grass. Getting away from the grass means walking the hot sidewalks or stepping over the street’s multiple patchings.

“We can’t wait to go fishing at lunch,” Patterson said of the new facility, anticipating the morale boost she and her colleagues will share. She smiled. “Like we’ll ever have the time.”