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Students Try to Solve Health Disparities for Utah's American Indians

Deirdre Yazzie hopes to help American Indian children of drug addicts through traditional healing methods.

By Andrea Smardon

Salt Lake City, UT – For freshman Deirdre Yazzie, the health issues facing American Indians are not just academic.

"Like diabetes in my family, arthritis, breast cancer, a whole assortment of diseases - I see these health disparities play out, and it's just like, someone's got to do something," she said.

Yazzie was born on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and even though she lives in Salt Lake City now, she makes the trip back almost every weekend. Yazzie says she watches her family struggle to access health care, with long drives to see a physician, long waits at clinics, and limited access to specialists. These are the kinds of health disparities that the University of Utah Honors College aims to address with its American Indian Patient Experience Think Tank. For her project, Yazzie decided to focus on drug addiction.

"It's something that was very personal to me, I mean growing up in a household where my father is a drug addict, seeing it kind of play out, I wanted to be able to provide some kind of outlet for kids like me."

Yazzie's project aims to bring traditional healing practices to urban youth, and start to address the way drug abuse affects families. Yazzie says she almost abandoned the project last month when she had trouble gaining the support of partners in the American Indian community.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done in all my academic life. I'm taking on a think tank, in something that has so much innovation in it, and going way beyond the boundaries of the classroom. I think that's what being a real college student is about, stepping over those boundaries, and learning something that you can put in the real world," said Yazzie.

Jim Agutter from the College of Architecture and Planning is the Professor behind the student think tank. He calls this method of learning translational education.

"We take the education that they learn - which is incredibly detailed, sophisticated and complex, and they utilize that through this time period and actually come out with projects that really matter. People sit and listen to and say, that's a really good idea. We should so something like that. You've come up with something that we hadn't thought about."

After a year of study, student proposals include creating a diabetes education kit, building a walking path on a reservation, and starting a volunteer project to help American Indians navigate paperwork and other hurdles to getting healthcare. Agutter says, the university has a role to play in bringing attention to a hidden and complex problem.

"Where we are in SLC, and being in Utah - we're uniquely situated both historically as well as physically around several tribes, and that we as universities and areas of higher learning should investigate and continue to research this, and bring the issues to light," said Agutter.

The think tank has produced a new student group which will continue to coordinate health projects in the American Indian community. It's called Full Circle.

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