LOWER BRULE, S.D. –
LOWER BRULE, S.D. -- In the basement of the Lower Brule Tribal Administration building the smell of fresh garlic, cumin, oregano and chili powder fills the hallways as an infectious laugh mixes with sounds from chopping boards.
“I love it!” said Army Reserve nutritionist Maj. Elizabeth Rodriguez, who found it hard to hide her enthusiasm about her profession or her diabetic students as she watched them toss ingredients into a row of crock-pots after teaching them a healthy way to make Hearty Chicken Chile.
“She has a really great personality and is very humorous,” said Tyler Jones, a lifestyle coach with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Diabetes Prevention Program. “I’m hoping she can make them realize that diabetes is no joke and that it is life threatening.”
Rodriguez traveled to Lower Brule and Fort Thompson, South Dakota with nearly 30 Soldiers from the 1207th U.S. Army Hospital as part of an Innovative Readiness Training mission. IRT gives Soldiers invaluable experience in real-world situations that have a direct and lasting impact on communities in need of the expertise. The visit marked the first time the program had ever worked with the U.S. Army Reserve.
“It’s been a really great experience,” said Jones. “I wish she could be here every day.“
Rodriguez, a native of Ceiba, Puerto Rico, was inspired to become a dietician after her grandmother passed away at 55 years old from diabetes complications. She not only promised herself she would not die from the disease but resolved to teach others how to live a healthier lifestyle through nutrition. Thirty years later, she is still helping Soldiers both as a civilian outpatient dietician at Fort Benning, Georgia’s Martin Army Community Hospital and as the chief dietician for her unit.
“My goal is to, by the end of the year, become a certified diabetes educator to empower my patients to take care of themselves,” she said.
Rodriguez used her light-hearted humor as a tool to broach the serious topic of diet and diabetes with her cooking students, all of whom suffer from the Type 2 variety. According to the Centers for Diseases Control, 29 million people in the United States have diabetes. Diabetics have higher than normal blood sugar levels and Type 2 Diabetes causes the body to improperly use insulin.
During her two-week annual training in the area, Rodriguez taught classes, spoke to more than 20 residents and even went door-to-door, though some didn’t always open.
“Some are a little resistant; you’re new, they don’t know you,” she said.
But for residents like Bessie Loudner
who did open up to the message, they weren’t disappointed.
"When I first met her, I could tell that she's really somebody who cares about others,” Loudner
recalled. “For her to take the time to sit with us and just visit with us one-on-one; like with me about my blood sugar, it meant a lot.”
Minorities, like Native Americans, are twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease according to the American Diabetes Association. Many in Lower Brule have a family history of the disease, but the issue is often compounded by sedentary lifestyles and the expense of fresh food.
“Not a lot of people have jobs on the reservation. Most of the people who don’t have jobs have EBT or commodities. On commodities, you don’t get a wide variety of fruits and vegetables,” said Jones.
The diabetes program provides incentives for residents to participate in nutrition education to help them make better choices with the options they do have. Students in Rodriguez’s class got to keep their cooking utensils and crock-pots used to cook the night’s meal.
“I’m anxious to see how that turns out,” said Wilma Wilson glancing over at her pot of simmering chili. The Lower Brule resident lost 50 pounds through diet and exercise since her diagnosis six years ago and appreciated the new recipe.
“She gives us a lot of information that I can use about nutrition, so that’s good,” she added.
The way Rodriguez sees it, it’s all about the information. The more residents know about their diet and how to manage it, the better chances they have of avoiding complications associated with diabetes in the future.
“This is a project in progress,” said Rodriguez, “the little seed that we plant, I hope it’s going to grow and have good roots.”