THE BLOG
06/15/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Martin's Legacy: A Dying Native American Leads the Charge for Change

"What do you want people to remember about you?" I ask. He replies, "It ain't me I want you to remember. It's my people. We ain't all depressed, we ain't all oppressed, we ain't all alcoholics, we're just like you. We all want something out of life."

It's 2:00 a.m. The vertebrae sticking through Martin Bad Wound's right lung is causing him to cough blood into a once-white handkerchief with a frayed edged. He hasn't had his diabetes injection and his blood sugar is dangerously low. The pain is unbearable. A steroid injection from a local hospital is all that will get him through the night.

Selfishness is the easiest way to sit back and bathe oneself in apathy while the shadows of the world's countless hurdles surround us. We're stressed out from work, we're barely making rent, and our health insurance won't cover the surgery we need. What would happen if we pressed pause and redirected our complete attention towards others?

Meet Martin Bad Wound -- a man who is living on the brink of death. He has a bleeding spleen, a vertebrae sticking through his lung, a club foot, diabetes, high blood pressure, and he needs open heart surgery. He's 45-years-old but looks no less than 60. Lighting up another cigarette, an admitted vice but a much needed escape, he states with conviction, "Look at me and tell me how many years you think I have left. You think I have five years? You think I have twenty? I don't even bet I have a year."

Martin is an Oglala Lakota Native American. He lives in one of the poorest counties in the United States -- the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (SD). Pine Ridge has a per capita income of $7,000, up to two-thirds of adults are alcoholics, and teen suicide is four times the national rate -- numbers such as these would drive many a good human to desperation and all consuming selfishness. Martin fights these odds. What's astonishing is that although he lives in one of the most economically challenging areas of the country, and suffers unimaginable physical pain, Martin refuses to put himself first. When the pain is not overwhelming he struggles out of bed with one goal in mind -- to find employment for the reservation's youth. He rings doorbells, pulls teenagers out of bed and finds work for them in the community.

The rag-tag group might be fixing a fence at a ranch, hauling old car tires from the junk yard to sell in nearby Rapid City, or harvesting trees in Yellow Bear Canyon for firewood. Most of the time they finish the day with only enough cash for a soda and cigarettes. Greater than the monetary value are the social benefits -- Martin is the male role model these kids never had, a father figure and a respected community elder.

Why does Martin help people? It's the same reason so many Changemakers live for others, they've experienced suffering first hand. Martin doesn't have to try, like I do, to put himself in someone else's shoes -- he's already there. Martin lives from day-to-day. The only way he's able to overcome his excruciating physical pain is to direct all of his attention to his people. It's his mission, his dharma, his guiding light -- whatever you want to label it -- that keeps him going.

We've all got problems. We all struggle. We all have something to learn from the aptly named Martin Bad Wound. By directing our attention towards others we'll find salvation, fulfillment, and we'll being to chip away at the challenges of the world.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.