My Own Montana

My Grandpa Lute and relatives work a cattle roundup (Northeastern Montana, 1951)

My Grandpa Lute and relatives work a cattle roundup. (Northeastern Montana, 1951)

 It’s true, not trite: Global health is local health.

I grew up in Montana, granddaughter of wild cowboys and Norwegian homesteaders who roamed the backwaters of harsh northeastern Montana, sandwiched between Indian reservations.  In many ways it was similar to life in a developing country: poor; scarce medical access; questionable water quality; little education or access to education.  For example, my uncle had a seventh-grade education and was an irrigation ditch gatekeeper, yet tested by the Army to have an I.Q. over 160 – genius.

Fortunately, my parents encouraged education as an escape from such a future.  Turkey, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Yugoslavia became the places I lived, studied, and worked – thanks to my parents’ encouragement and the financial generosity of philanthropists and their scholarships.

Marginal Medical Care in Montana

My parents prop my brother on a saddle. He's now an Oscar-winninganimator in L.A. (Northeastern Montana, 1953)

My parents prop my brother on a saddle. He’s now an Oscar-winning animator in L.A. (Northeastern Montana, 1953)

I thought my parents’ healthcare was normal, until I was older.  They came from large families on outback Montana homesteads in no-name places:  no medical insurance; paltry medical access; no money for medicines when they got sick.

Medical Nightmares

My mom was 21, dad 25 when they married. Nine months and two weeks later – with limited medical access and meager medical insurance – their first baby was born.  He was profoundly retarded with severe Down’s syndrome.  Never seeing such a thing, the doctor asked my mother if she had an affair “with a Chinaman” (slanted eyes of Down’s syndrome), and refused to let them see or hold their son.  Three days later their baby died: unbaptized, untouched in life by parents who conceived his life… held only in death.

My parents pressed into hope and had four more children – all healthy.  During that time my mother also helped care for her own mother, riddled with uterine/cervical cancer that raced through her body.  It was so easily treatable if she’d been detected earlier.  With no money for medical treatment, hospital care, or strong painkillers like morphine, my mother’s mother died an excruciatingly painful death at home. She was just 49 years old.

My mother and dad – saddled with their own babies – nevertheless took in my aunt (my mother’s younger sister) after their mother died.  She “got pregnant” (today known as rape) at age 16, and my parents helped care for this beloved teenaged relative, along with her young daughter –  my cousin. Somehow, they stretched the rice and beans and deer meat to make it all work, with my parents paying for this young mother’s medical care.

My cowboy grandpa, Lute. He's 53 years old in this photo. (Northeastern Montana, 1951)

My cowboy grandpa, Lute. He’s 53 years old in this photo. (Northeastern Montana, 1951)

My grandpa died of a massive stroke at age 55:  no money for medical care, let alone early detection that could have pointed to warning signs. (He smoked. He was a cowboy.)  Out-of-wedlock babies – some by my cousins just 12 and 15 and 16 years old – were cared for by family. (These days my cousins’ “mistakes” are all crimes: rape).   Lack of money severely limited medical care for these new teen mothers – my cousins – and their infants.

This could be a narrative from Russia, Kenya, or Tajikistan.

But it’s my own United States.

My own Montana.

My own family.

Mental Illness, Turkish-Style

In the fallout of Montana’s dessimated agricultural economy, our family moved to Wisconsin in hopes of a better life – not unlike those in developing countries compelled to uproot to big cities for better jobs.

At age 17, I was chosen as a high school exchange student to a small town in Turkey, headed by a doctor and midwife.  Sadly, during my stay my Turkish exchange mother – secretly mentally ill for years – had a complete breakdown.  She was hospitalized, then cared for by our family, including me.  Through my Turkish mother I witnessed the devastating effects of profound mental illness, along with its stigma in Turkish culture.

1973: I'm at home, our white-washed home, in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey.

I’m at home, our white-washed home, in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey.

What I witnessed at age 17 compelled me at age 18 to work as a nurse’s aide in a third-rate county hospital that warehoused geriatric, psychiatric, and mentally handicapped patients.  I cared for every personal need imaginable.  In the end I witnessed their final breath, their death, and then I cleaned their bodies…

I was moved, having seen the effects of illness at home and overseas.  I was moved, having seen the effects of untimely deaths because of lack of healthcare access and lack of money with my very own family and relatives in Montana.

The issues of global health were in my own life, all along – not just “over there,” on another continent, overseas.

Global Health is Local Health

I'm 8 years old, growing up in Montana.

I’m 8 years old, growing up in Montana. Fortunately, never seriously sick.

The career roads we take – that I take – are not necessarily clearly defined or smooth.  And yet, as blinded as I sometimes feel in the steps of faith I take in my career, I’ve been able to use journalism and experiences from my own family, and from living in Turkey, Russia, Yugoslavia,  Uzbekistan, as well as from covering Chernobyl first-hand as a reporter to create stories illuminating medical/health issues – especially in global health.

Standing on that foundation, I’m compelled to help bring to light – and resolution – such pressing health issues globally and locally, in my heart and in my home.


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