The Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital on the Omaha Reservation in Walthill, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Health | National

Omaha Tribe working to restore hospital built by first Native American doctor

'Nobody knows anything about her except the Omaha people'

Susan La Flesche raised funds for hospital on reservation in Nebraska

By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk

The 26-year-old Omaha woman woke up early that morning, long before the sun began to warm the frozen prairie of her northeast Nebraska reservation.

Susan La Flesche moved as quickly as she could, harnessing her horses to her buggy and dropping her small black bag on a seat before setting out. She knew time was her enemy.

Somewhere out in the cold and the dark and the two feet of snow, a girl lay dying. And La Flesche, the Omaha Reservation’s doctor, refused to let her people down, knowing how much they had pushed to get her into medical school and into a profession dominated by men.

So she fought the 20-below zero temperatures that morning, fought her fear of dying alone in the vast emptiness of her homeland. Finally, after nearly 10 miles, she saw white smoke drifting from a crude home on the horizon.

Inside the one-room house, she found the 14-year-old girl, suffering from tuberculosis and the flu, lying on the floor in a corner, struggling to sit up. She gave her some medicine and left her some more before leaving, but La Flesche returned nearly every day for two weeks to check on her until the girl died one evening.

Before she died, the girl asked her husband: Is Susan coming today? Indeed, the doctor had been on her way to see the girl.

A portrait of Susan La Flesche Picotte, M.D. Image: National Anthropological Archives

It was that experience in 1892 and hundreds of others like it that convinced La Flesche — America’s first Native American doctor — to seek construction of a modern hospital on the reservation. With 1,244 patients spread across 1,350 square miles, she knew she would only be able to see a handful each day unless she had a single location where she could treat them for influenza, small pox, whooping cough and the countless other ailments they might be experiencing.

“Then she could walk out of her house, turn right and go 5 blocks, and right there she would have all of her patients centralized in one hospital, and she could see 25 or 30 or 40 a day, instead of 5,” said Joe Starita, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor and author of A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor.

In 1913, La Flesche fulfilled her lifelong dream when she raised enough money to open a hospital on a hill overlooking Walthill, where she treated sick patients until her own death at the age of 50 just two years later.

“She was able to raise the money and open this hospital and realize her dream in 1913 without ever spending a dollar of public tax money,” Starita said. “Who does that? Who builds a hospital without any tax money — now, before, ever, let alone 104 years ago? Well, Susan La Flesche did.”

Now a group of Nebraska historians, the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (NCIA) and the Omaha Tribe want to restore La Flesche’s hospital — which has fallen into disrepair after years of remaining empty — and have begun a fundraising campaign to do so.

A historic photo of the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital on the Omaha Reservation in Walthill, Nebraska. Source: National Park Service

Born in a tipi in 1865, the daughter of one of the last recognized chiefs of her people, La Flesche graduated at the top of her medical school class in 1889. She did so more than 30 years before women could vote and Indians were recognized as U.S. citizens.

Forgoing lucrative job offers and the promise of a life of luxury, La Flesche returned to the Omaha Reservation upon graduation, to practice medicine in a place where she lacked many of the basic necessities and medical staff needed to treat hundreds of patients. She spent many long days traversing the hills, galleys and rivers of her reservation, her buffalo robe draped across her shoulders as her horses and buggy carried her to the homes of sick children and elders.

Beyond just providing primary care, however, La Flesche also launched public health campaigns that included eliminating the use of communal drinking cups and combating alcohol abuse.

Michael Wolfe, chairman of the Omaha Tribe, said he would like to see her hospital restored to its original condition. To that end, the tribe recently made repairs to the building’s roof, he said.

“We would like to revive it in the state it was in in its heyday,” he said.

He said he would like to see the hospital transformed into a historical site — the building is already a National Historic Landmark — and provide offices for the Omaha Tribe. He said the tribe has enlisted the help of Omaha architect Gary Bowen, who has offered to plan the hospital’s renovation for free.

Wolfe said he hopes the project will help elevate La Flesche’s stature beyond Nebraska.

“Nobody knows anything about her except the Omaha people,” he said. “We’re very proud of her.”

A hallway and room inside the historic Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital on the Omaha Reservation in Walthill, Nebraska. Source: National Park Service

Those spearheading the effort also have enlisted the help of Ross Greathouse, a Lincoln, Nebraska trails advocate who helped raise money for the Standing Bear Trail — a nearly 20-mile stretch of former railway in Nebraska between Beatrice and Barneston. Earlier this year, the Nebraska Trails Foundation gave the stretch of land to the Ponca Tribe.

Greathouse said much work lies ahead to restore the 2 1/2-story wood frame building in Walthill to its original condition, including installing new windows and possibly a new roof. He estimated the project could cost as much as $1 million.

He said it will be important to solicit individual donations before approaching foundations with deep pockets to help support the effort. He said such foundations look more kindly on large numbers of donations rather than a few large donations when considering whether to provide support.

“That just shows tremendous support,” he said.

Judi gaiashkibos, NCIA’s executive director, said she would like to see the building given a purpose that will allow it to be used every day by Omaha people.

Restoring the hospital would help inspire future generations of Native Americans considering paths similar to La Flesche’s, Starita said.

And it would honor the memory of a woman who fought through snow and freezing temperatures to try to save a teenager dying of tuberculosis, he said.

“We would do ourselves a favor, not only as Nebraskans but as Americans, to restore Susan’s hospital so we help remember and memorialize who she was, and that is something that is in everybody’s interest,” he said.

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