Patricia Tellez-Giron, M.D., who grew up in Mexico, knows first-hand the challenges of immigrants. As a family medicine doctor and community activist, she’s cared for the Latinx community in Madison for decades. “Almost everything I do is because the Latinx community is a community that has been in the shadows for a long, long time,” she says. “With COVID, it is even more evident.”
Rebecca Webster, J.D., Ph.D., of the Oneida Nation, grew up and lives in Oneida, Wisconsin. She teaches tribal administration and governance at the University of Minnesota Duluth, helped organize a co-op to raise traditional corn and, with her family, lives and raises traditional heirloom food. “I think everybody needs to have healthier relationships with their food,” she says. “With the pandemic, it was interesting to see seed companies running out of seed as people worried about their food supply—and they should worry. Our food system is completely unstable and unsustainable.”
On April 14, Tellez-Giron and Webster are among the panelists for two panel discussions at the virtual 2021 Global Health Symposium, “Fostering Resilience Through Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge.” Physicians and Tribal leaders will explore “Indigenous Knowledge, Wisdom & Resilience: Perspectives from Wisconsin’s Native Nations” at 12 p.m. (CDT) and “On the Front Lines for COVID: What We Learned” at 3 p.m. (CDT)
The symposium is hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute (GHI) and Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP) in the School of Medicine and Public Health. It is also funded through a grant from the Our Shared Future Marker Education Innovation Grant and and an Indians and Medicine Grant through the Indian Health Service. The virtual event will be from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, and also includes Keynote Speaker and Indigenous Scholar Mariaelena Huambachano from the School of Human Ecology, virtual poster presentations from across campus and time for virtual networking.
Native Nations speakers link tradition, food sovereignty and health
The Native Nations panel is an opportunity to highlight that global is also local, to engage Wisconsin tribes and share the great work that’s happening in Wisconsin, says moderator and NACHP Director Danielle Yancey, M.S. “The panelists are amazing leaders and advocates in their communities who are doing incredible work that is grounded in indigenous knowledge and teachings. The panel is a place to share this important work that is happening right here in our own state.”
In addition to Webster, the panel also includes Gary Besaw, M.S., of the Menominee, Bear Clan, a member of the Tribal Legislature, former Tribal Chairman and director of the Menominee Tribal Department of Agriculture and Food Systems and the Tribal Food Distribution Department and Whitney Miller Schrieber, R.N., BSN, CDE, a diabetes nurse educator and member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, and .
Webster, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, teaches tribal administration and governance, and serves on the Oneida Land Commission. She has always enjoyed eating traditional foods, but they were expensive and saved for special meals. “So we decided that we were going to make time and grow them ourselves,” she says.
The family bought land, and family and friends helped build a home. Now, the Websters grow Haudenosaunee (traditional Iroquois) corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco for ceremonies. They hope to create a place for the community to learn about everything from planting seeds to making traditional tools. An Oneida faithkeeper named the property Ukwakhwa: Tsinu Niyukwayay^thoslu (Our food: Where we plant things ). Webster also helped found a 10-family co-op, Ohe·láku (Among the Cornstalks), that grows Iroquois white corn.
“We have a relationship with seeds,” she says. “It’s more than just food. They’re our relatives. We have mutual responsibilities to each other.”
‘The philosophy is that every seed an Indigenous person plants is an act of resistance and assertion of sovereignty.”—Rebecca Webster
Studies show that returning to an Indigenous diet can lead to better health, and Webster is a champion for traditional foods. She sees her community’s historic reliance on federal policies and “foods our bodies weren’t meant to consume,” that lead to high rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. “Indigenous food is an important issue,” she says, “I’m glad we’re starting to get the message out.”
Physicians share the hidden side of COVID
The second panel, “On the Front Lines for COVID: What We Learned,“ brings together physicians who have witnessed the ravages of COVID-19 as they have cared for communities in Madison and Milwaukee.
“Physicians saw the clinical, economic and social impacts of COVID on a daily basis,” says GHI Associate Director and panel moderator Janis Tupesis, M.D., an emergency physician and faculty member in the UW Berbee Walsh Department of Emergency Medicine. “This has been the uniquely hardest year for physicians. Every day while working in the clinical setting – we see a health system that has often been overmatched by COVID-19. On a personal side, we hear from many professional organizations that there are significant rates of burnout, increased rates of mental illness and people quitting their jobs. It’s beyond many people’s scope to deal with anymore. …
“Taking it one step further, I think the panelists will offer what COVID has been like to their entire community. It’s not what you’re going to see on MSNBC or Fox news. It’s the truth as they have experienced it.”
The panel also includes Tellez-Giron, Christopher Ford, M.D., an emergency physician and educational director for Infinity Healthcare in Milwaukee, and Bret Benally Thompson, M.D., a palliative care physician and faculty member in the UW Department of Medicine.
“The pandemic caught us all off guard.”—Christopher Ford
“There was no way to plan for this or know what was expected,” Ford says. “As we started moving forward (and) seeing patient coming in sicker and sicker, we did not know the entirety of the symptoms. We were essentially practicing in the dark.” The pandemic hit close to home immediately for Ford, when his wife went into labor just after he’d cared for a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit.
Ford credits critical care and emergency physicians for coming together as a real-time cohort to study data and determine best practices. From hospitals to community care, the pandemic brought deficiencies to light from lack of PPE and staff to lack of access to care.
Tellez-Giron, an associate professor in the UW Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, had earned her medical degree with honors before emigrated from Mexico, moving without anything to start over cleaning houses and caring for senior citizens while she met the requirements needed to practice in the U.S. Her clinical practice is at the Wingra Clinic, where more than 90 percent of her patients speak only Spanish.
Madison’s Latinx community has an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people that are at high risk from the coronavirus. “But no one said, ‘Can we help you?’” Tellez-Giron says. “Within the community, we organize and provide services without many resources from the community at large. Because there are only a few of us, there’s no time to advertise what we do, no time to wait for resources. We keep going within the community with the resources we can gather here and there.”
“We will get out of the shadows and recruit more help from the community at large.”—Patricia Tellez-Giron
Tellez-Giron’s advocacy for her community is wide, from acting as the medical director and main presenter on a monthly Spanish radio program for 17 years to chairing the Latino Health Council for the last 20 years as it has organized community events from the Latino Health Fair to a Latino Mental Health summit. She’s been honored as a teacher, a leader and a humanitarian by organization as diverse as UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Governor and the Arnold P. Gold Foundation.
The Latinx community is the largest community of color in the United States and in Wisconsin, yet it remains in the shadows, Tellez-Giron says. “We are one of the communities that are at greater risk (from COVID-19) because we have to do essential jobs that cannot be done from home. Regardless of the fear, they had to go back and work, then they got sick and many didn’t make it or have chronic complications.”
Now, with the vaccine available, she and her community are moving forward again to get shots into arms and support families. “We got to work, and people are noticing,” she says.
That’s why she’s ready to tell her story. “We will get out of the shadows and recruit more help from the community at large.”