By BETTY SMITH
TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — The staff at W.W. Hastings Hospital treated patients as usual Wednesday morning, with some of those patients perhaps not aware the Cherokee Nation had assumed operations at midnight.
At mid-morning, the transfer of Hastings from Indian Health Services to the Cherokee Nation became formal, with a presentation outside the hospital. The handover of a large “key” from Hickory Starr, acting area director of the Indian Health Service, to Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith took place near where the Cherokee Nation plans an addition to the health care complex, increasing and improving services.
“This is a very exciting day, not only for the Cherokee Nation and for Cherokee citizens, but for all Native Americans living in this area,” said Melissa Gower, group leader for Cherokee Nation Health Services.
The transfer culminated a nine-month process that began in January, with the Cherokee Nation sending a letter of intent, self-governance compact and annual funding agreement to federal officials. Then, 21 planning teams, consisting of representatives from the Cherokee Nation and Hastings, reviewed and evaluated each service at the hospital.
A final report recommended changes in the various services, and the plan was in the negotiations stage between April and June 20. Seven transition teams were formed.
“Those transition teams have worked very hard to ensure there is not a stop in services, there is not a gap in services,” Gower said.
A lawsuit opposing the move, filed in federal court Tuesday by the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, did not interfere with the transition. The UKB earlier had made a bid itself to take over Hastings, shortly after the Cherokee Nation announced its plans.
Dignitaries attending the ceremony included Smith, Muscogee Creek Nation Principal Chief A.D. Ellis, the Seminole Nation second chief, and other tribal, state and local elected officials. Marie Wadley of Muskogee, an elder who once served as secretary to the Five Civilized Tribes, was a special guest.
Smith said the Cherokee Nation has studied other locations where tribes have assumed operation of Indian Health Services facilities.
“They have shown us that tribes can excel in health care,” he said.
He said the tribe’s overriding concern is to provide the best possible health care for Indian people.
Smith said the assumption of Hastings operations was one of several Cherokee ideas that “went from the back of a napkin to reality.” Others include tribal gaming, operation of Sequoyah High School, and law enforcement.
“We’ve approached them with sound planning, and the idea can grow,” he said. “I can see in five to 10 years more health services to be proud of.”
He said the latest accomplishment exemplifies what can happen when Cherokees practice the spirit of “ga-du-gi,” the principal long advocated by his administration: working together for the benefit of the community.
Ellis said about 11,000 Muscogee Creek citizens live in the area served by Hastings.
“The Cherokee Nation is setting a goal for other tribes in the health care field,” he said.
The Muscogee Creek Nation recently built a clinic at Coweta to serve natives living in that area.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more clinics and hospitals in the Indian community,” he said.
Many native families in this area have close ties to Hastings, said Meredith Frailey, speaker of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.
“It is more than just a building. It’s a personal story for many people,” she said.
She told of the joys of babies being born at the facility, of elders receiving dignified care at the end of their lives, of people gaining hope through the cure of diseases.
“My late mother was treated like a national treasure during her last days at Hastings Hospital,” she said “It’s also a facility that offers hope. Hope is what gives us the energy to survive.”
She said that over the years, the federal government made many efforts to end tribal sovereignty.
“We never lost hope, and we never did give up on our fight for sovereignty,” she said.
She described the Cherokee Nation’s assumption of Hastings operations as a turning point in fulfilling the hope of all Indian people for better health care.
Dr. Gloria Grim, medical director for Cherokee Nation Health Services, said many hours have been spent in assuring a smooth transition.
“The hours have been countless. We’ve had sleepless nights, we’ve had families who have done without us,” she said.
But the work will benefit Cherokee Nation Health Services as a whole, she said.
“I know that change is very, very difficult, whether it be a good change or a bad change,” she said.
But she considers the transition a positive change.
“It will be a little uncomfortable at first, but we want to make it as seamless and painless as possible,” she said.
Grim said Hastings already has an excellent reputation for patient care.
“They have reached a point where there are some areas they cannot expand upon,” she said.
With the input of the Cherokee Nation, this can be accomplished, she said.
“The staff will be the same, the faces will be the same,” she said.
But they will have more tools and equipment needed by staff members and patients.
Starr, a Cherokee Nation citizen, said he has close ties to this area and to Hastings, which he supervised for seven years.
“Is this a good thing? It is,” he said of the transition. “We provided as good a care as you could get in northeastern Oklahoma, and that was the goal here.”
He said during his administration, Hastings had a staff any big city hospital would have been proud of.
“Can the tribe do as well as or better? Yes, they can,” he said. “Will they? I think they will. Let them know what you expect. If you make known to them the things you expect, I think they will try to achieve it.”
He pledged the assistance of IHS in continuing to provide quality care.
The speeches during the transition ceremony were punctuated by occasional announcements over the hospital’s public address system, indicating operations were going on as usual.
But, Gower said, at least one change already has been made.
“One of the things the staff at Hastings has been very vocal about is that they wanted some type of food service available for them. I’m very pleased to say they had breakfast awaiting this morning,” she said.