Lesson 2: 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 not dissimilar from living in a developing country – say, rural Russia or Uzbekistan: poor; scarce medical access; questionable well 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, I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to read, write, and pursue education as an escape from what otherwise might have been my future of struggles as well. Turkey, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Yugoslavia became the places I lived, studied and worked—thanks to my parents’ encouragement, my jobs, and the financial kindness of philanthropists and their scholarships.

My parents prop my brother on a saddle. He's now an animator in Los Angeles. (Northeastern Montana, 1950s)

My parents prop my brother on a saddle. He’s now an animator in Los Angeles. (Northeastern Montana, 1950s)

 I KNEW NO DIFFERENTLY until I was older, thinking my family’s healthcare was ‘normal.’ My parents grew up in large families on outback Montana homesteads in no-name places: no medical insurance, paltry medical access; no money for medicines when they got sick.

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, profoundly retarded with severe Down’s syndrome. Never seeing such a thing, the doctor asked if my mother 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 Gary Dale Holter 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. Even then, my mother also helped care for her own mother, riddled with uterine/cervical cancer that raced through her body. It was all so easily treatable, had there been early detection. With no money for medical treatment, hospital care, or strong drugs like morphine, her mother–my grandmother–died an excruciatingly painful death at home, age 49.

My cowboy grandpa, Lute. He's 53 years old in this photo. (Northeastern Montana, 1950s)

My cowboy grandpa, Lute. He’s 53 years old in this photo. (Northeastern Montana, 1950s)

MY COWBOY 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. Out-of-wedlock babies – some by my cousins just 15 and 16 years old—were cared for by family. Lack of money severely limited medical care for these new teen mothers 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.

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IN WAKE OF MONTANA’S dessimated 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 a high school exchange student to a small Muslim 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.

1973: 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.

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

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 in my own family, in Turkey, Russia, Chernobyl, Yugoslavia, and Uzbekistan as stories to illuminate medical/health issues, especially in global health.

Standing on that foundation, I now focus on global health issues with every skill I have, with every hope and belief that, indeed, ‘every life has equal value.’

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