Synthetic Corpse Helps Indigenous Nursing Students Align School and Culture

Brittney Ironmaker-Matt remembers her first experience with a human corpse.

“The presence is really strange,” she said. “I had a hard time”

She could feel it spiritually, she recalls. And, as the only Indigenous student in her class at the time, “Everyone was like, ‘What’s their problem? “”

Ironmaker-Matt is a descendant of the Salish Kootenai and is part of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe. She is studying to be a dentist and needs to know all the bones and organs in the body.

Ironmaker-Matt will be among the first graduates of Salish Kootenai College’s four-year nursing program; it is the first tribal college in the country to offer one.

In a recent biology class early in the morning, she removes the sutures from another corpse – but this time it’s a synthetic. The corpse – its name is Harmony – looks and feels like a real human body.

“That’s exactly how they feel, even their mouths,” Ironmaker-Matt described. “Exactly how they feel.”

She says that when she had to interact with the real corpse years ago, it was only a few weeks after losing her grandmother. As a child, she was taught that it was inappropriate to work with corpses because it was against her cultural beliefs.

She said the stress of having to go against her belief is an experience other Indigenous people must go through as they navigate higher education – and it’s a deterrent that might keep them away. away from the medical field.

“You don’t just cut and touch a body,” said Ironmaker-Matt. With Harmony, however, “you can do it all.

“It is crucial that we have touch and feel, because it facilitates our learning process. ”

Harmony is one way Salish Kootenai College tries to align education with the cultural beliefs of its students – not only to aid retention, but also to train much-needed healthcare workers. as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“This is important because otherwise they might choose not to pursue these fields,” said Sandra Boham, president of Salish Kootenai College, “because they don’t want to have a choice between living their values ​​and their profession. ”

This year the school’s nursing students can meet in person, unlike last year when all classes had to be online and many students couldn’t meet Harmony.

Boham said Harmony is the only synthetic corpse in Montana and the only one in a tribal college in the country.

Instructors should send Harmony to Florida for the interview, or what they call her “spa treatment”. The cost: a whopping $ 82,000 up front, plus a warranty of $ 20,000 per year.

“But that’s what students need today to be up to date and marketable,” Boham said.

Filling a community need

Boham says the college has maintained a 1% infection rate throughout the pandemic, and she attributes that to its students seeing masks and getting vaccinated as a health care responsibility, not just a personal choice . She says it makes their students equipped to be great health care providers.

“We just have to band together and be like a buffalo and head for the storm,” Boham said. “When we come out on the other side, it will be, ‘We did everything together, and everything will be fine. “”

Tribal colleges are generally integrated with tribal communities, where health disparities can be particularly glaring. Almost 70% of residents living around Salish Kootenai College – tribal and non-tribal alike – have underlying health issues, according to the Lake County Department of Health.

Bernadette Corum is the medical director of the local tribal health service. She said rural clinics urgently need health workers.

“I feel like even before COVID we had a shortage of healthcare workers here and on the reserve, but I know this is happening in all rural areas as well,” Corum said.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, about 46 million Americans live in rural areas, and without proper transportation or access to well-funded and well-staffed clinics, the health of rural communities suffers. And these problems are exacerbated in tribal communities.

Healthcare clinicians everywhere are suffering from burnout, but Corum says rural tribal healthcare programs across the country will feel the effects much longer than clinics in more populous areas.

“I foresee that we are going to need to continue for several years,” she said.

And while the need for rural health workers is great, Kristine Hilton, director of the nursing program at Salish Kootenai College, said the school is also focused on supporting the higher education pathways of its students. students.

“We know it’s hard to go to nursing school, even at the best of times it’s just not easy,” she said. “But during a pandemic, it’s even more difficult.

“Because we know life is coming and we don’t want them to drop out of school.”

Salish Kootenai College looks forward to graduating its first four-year nursing students in spring 2024.

Hilton says having more Indigenous medical workers – like Brittney Ironmaker-Matt – can help build trust with Indigenous communities. But she remembers a local student last year who personally called people for mammograms with great success.

“She said, ‘You’re in line for your mammogram,’ and because they knew who she was, when she showed up and everything… said Hilton.

Taylar Stagner is the reporter for Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America Indigenous Affairs.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.


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