11/05/2012 09:53 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2013

Heart Disease and Diabetes Have Invaded Indian Country

One day I was scheduled to go into surgery at the Rapid City Eye Institute for a detached retina and while I was on the gurney hooked up to monitors, the nurse attending me called a physician and he studied the heart monitor and suddenly stopped the tests and disconnected me from everything. I was told that my heartbeat was extremely slow and they were taking me over to the cardiac ward.

I was very lucky that my eye exam revealed a deeper problem. I was taken to the emergency examining room and hooked up to a lot of instruments, blood drawn about every hour or so and asked a lot of questions. One doctor was about to listen to my heartbeat when the crew that draws the blood arrived. The doctor said, "I'll be back after the vampires leave." It's funny how you remember mundane things like that when you are facing one of the biggest threats in your life.

I was finally taken to another area of the hospital where a doctor told me he was about to insert an instrument into the vein in my thigh, threading a tiny wire up the artery all the way to my heart to check for the points of blockage. This would allow the doctor to see all of the arteries in my heart. A local anesthetic had been given and there was absolutely no pain associated with the procedure thus far.

After the testing he told me that I had at least six vessels with blockage and that he would not recommend stents. Instead he recommended open heart surgery to replace the blocked arteries with vessels taken from my arm and leg. Now that did sound a little scary.

The next day I was lying in the preparation room while the anesthesiologist talked quietly and calmly to me while applying an anesthesia through the IV in my arm. My daughter Terri was at my bedside and as I was leaving the world of reality she told me I said to the doctor, "Will I be able to play the piano after this heart operation?" She told me the doctor said, "Yes, of course you will." I replied, just before sinking into total oblivion, "That's great, Doctor, because I can't play a piano now." I guess the humor released at this particular time relieved some of the stress, or else I was just plain zonked out.

The operation lasted about six hours. I was moved to the ICU ward for the night and I woke up the following day in the recovery ward. The ward I was on was called the Cabbage Pod, a name derived from all of the acronyms associated with cardiology.

The new procedure is to get the patient out of bed and on his feet as soon as possible. Two sturdy male nurses showed up by my bed the day after the surgery and very gently forced me to sit on the edge of the bed and then made me move my feet to the floor. Now that is when I felt a lot of pain. Remember, the surgeons had split my chest down the middle, put their hands inside of my chest cavity and replaced the blocked arteries in my heart with the new arteries from my arm and leg. I was told that my chest would take time to mend itself and that I should not try to lift myself up by pushing with my arms because the effort could cause damage at the operation site.

The male nurses stood on both sides of me and gave me support as I attempted to walk the short course they had chosen for me. That's when I realized that the operation to take the arteries from my legs and arm was also very painful. Now let me tell you, this is something I would not like to do again. After seven days I was allowed to go home. When I got home my family had found a little black kitten for me that they had named Cabbage Pod after the ward I was on. Pod is now seven years old and he has been my favorite pet since that time and it is amazing what a pet can do to help restore your health.

Open heart surgery is no picnic and heart disease is approaching epidemic proportions on many Indian reservations. All of the years of eating the commodity foods so high in fats and starches that are delivered to the reservations by the United States Department of Agriculture have taken a heavy toll, not only in heart disease, but also in diabetes which contributes greatly to the heart disease.

The Indian Health Service is pressed to its limits and it is facing heavy financial cuts even though Native Americans on reservations like the Pine Ridge in South Dakota have the shortest life expectancy in America. A Lakota friend of mine was facing open heart surgery and I wrote this column to let him know that I survived and so will he. He did just fine.

The Indian Health Service cannot care for the thousands of Indians it serves if its budget is cut again. We (Indians) are asking those people who care about us to let their Congressmen and women know that many lives are at stake if we lose what little funding we now receive.

My friend said that reading about my operation really helped.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame for his contributions to journalism. In 2007 he became the first Native American to be inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at