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Share about your role in public health research with tribal communities.

I work as a field coordinator on multiple research projects for Missouri Breaks Industries Research Inc. in the communities and reservations of Cheyenne River Sioux, Oglala Sioux, and Spirit Lake Sioux Nations. The most well-known project that I’m involved with is the Strong Heart Study, which is an epidemiological cardiovascular study that was set up similar to the landmark Framingham Heart Study. The Strong Heart Study began in 1989 and is currently the longest running epidemiological research done with Native American populations, and has three centers: the Dakota Center, Oklahoma Center, and Arizona Center. In 2015, I was honored with being added as a member to the Strong Heart Study Steering Committee.

Marie Gross USD
The Gross family. From left: Richard, Marie, Allison, Natalie, Terrance, and Sophia.

How did you get involved in public health research?

I started in research as a high school student. I was an intern, and as such, I would do errands in the Strong Heart Study clinic, and even help with morbidity and mortality abstracts, things like making copies or stamping charts. When I got to college, I was able to intern at the Sioux San Office in Rapid City, and was taught how to do the physical examinations by one of the first nurses to do the Strong Heart Study exams. I was able to help in the study clinics with data collection, administering forms, and lab duties. I also began traveling to the Pine Ridge Indian Health Service Unit and area Veterans Health Administration hospitals to obtain medical records for the morbidity and mortality surveillance.

Following college, I went to work as a tribal public health nurse on the Cheyenne River Reservation. After a couple of years, Phase VI of the Strong Heart Study was beginning, and they asked me if I would be interested in taking the role of the morbidity and mortality surveillance coordinator. I was in that role from 2001 through 2015. In between phases of the Strong Heart Study, I was able to be the project coordinator for other roles, including studies that looked at the genetics of smoking among tribes in the Great Plains and comparing rates to the tribes in the Southwest, who have much lower rates of nicotine addiction than tribes in the Great Plains. My most recent study was a Stroke Prevention Study that utilized motivational interviewing in household settings.

What tribe(s) do you identify with?

I am enrolled and grew up with my family on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and can trace my family to the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux Tribes as well. I identify closely with the Lakota Sioux reservations that I have grown up on and worked in my entire life.

What do you enjoy most about working in partnership with tribal communities?

I love working in the communities and helping families. There is always a great sense of humor in Lakota people, and they bring a light-hearted way of dealing with some of the heavy burdens that they have to deal with. After spending 22 years working in Strong Heart Study communities, I have come to feel like I know many of the participants and their families. Their health outcomes are important to me. Every day that you spend working one on one with participants is a good day. It helps me to understand what they are going through, but I also hope that I can help them to have a better understanding of what research means.

Which health issues are you most interested in studying?

I enjoy almost all health issues that I have worked with. Cardiovascular disease is important and wide-ranging in the many causes of it, as well as comorbidities of diseases that are present in those affected. Smoking rates are high within our communities, so I always find it good to work on improving the smoking health risk that increases the health disparities that occur within the Native American populations.

What mark do you hope to leave on improving health with and for Native American peoples and communities?

It is important to me that educated and qualified individuals are available as resources to our tribal communities. Very often, the more educated a person becomes, the easier it is to leave and go work in more urban areas that are far removed from the day-to-day struggles that people who live on reservations deal with. To that end, I hope to be able to be in my reservation communities helping to guide health issues in the right direction. I am excited to work in research because I feel like instead of helping one patient with their problems that day, I may actually be helping to reach thousands of Native Americans to improve their health outcomes. That sounds lofty, but that is truly what I hope: that the legacy we leave is improved health for all my relations.