Southland doctor committed to helping Blackfeet
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com September 10, 2013 7:30PM
Mike Cooke, of Orland Park, works on a painting project on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Mont. He was among a group of volunteers led by Dr. Joe Matheu who provide medical care and other services to the Native Americans for one week every summer. | Supplied photo
Updated: October 12, 2013 6:05AM
One week every summer for the past 15 years, Dr. Joe Matheu leaves his family practice in the Southland and heads to Glacier National Park in Montana.
While he enjoys the magnificent scenery and frequent sightings of moose, bears and mountain goats, Matheu comes to visit members of the Blackfeet Nation.
This once-powerful Native American tribe lives on an isolated, 1.5 million-acre reservation east of the national park, bordering on the Canadian province of Alberta. Its roughly 10,000 members struggle with poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse and a lack of medical care.
It is here where Matheu, 71, hopes to keep making a difference — inspired by the humanitarian efforts of Dr. Thomas Dooley, who became famous for establishing clinics to provide modern medical care in Southeast Asia during the 1950s.
“I read his books and thought somewhere in my life I would like to do that. But I also believe that charity begins at home,” Matheu said.
His love for the West drew him to contact the Indian Health Service, the federal health program for Native Americans, which led him to decide to aid the Blackfeet Nation. One of his former patients, Michael Ksycki, is now chief of surgery at Blackfeet Community Hospital.
On his first trip, Matheu was joined by his son James, also a doctor.
“That was an eye opener,” said Joe Matheu, who practices in Oak Lawn and Orland Park.
The following year, he returned with two more doctors and soon created the Blackfeet Medical Corps with a roster of specialists and nurses.
Joining Matheu are Craig Adams, of Palos Park, who specializes in critical care and pulmonary medicine; Mike Liston, of Palos Heights, orthopedics; Jeff Port, of Oak Lawn, gastroenterology; and Paul Storrs, of Palos Heights, dermatology.
As Matheu’s patients began to ask if they could donate time to help the Blackfeet, the medical corps expanded to include a construction corps of 15 to 20 skilled tradesmen and volunteers. They paint, repair drywall, build wheelchair ramps, rebuild playgrounds, renovate schools and remodel homes.
Because medical specialists are too far for the patients to travel to, much of the medical care on the reservation is done by physician assistants or nurse practitioners who are overworked and are the “real heroes, working with limited resources,” said Matheu, who has been given the tribal name Medicine Eagle.
For him and for those who accompany him, the annual summer trip has become an adventure, a life-changing experience.
The week of medical care for the Blackfeet “is better than nothing at all,” Matheu said. “They are very grateful for anything we do. We’ve been going for a long time, but we still fill an important need in the community. It is very fulfilling, especially when you work with people who have nothing.”
Liston has returned a few other times during the year, with other doctors and nurses. The teams of visiting doctors discover cancers, perform surgeries, provide emergency services and do what they can to address pulmonary disease, a major health problem given the high rate of smokers on the reservation.
“This is why we went into medicine,” Matheu said. “This is not rural medicine. This is frontier medicine, which is one step lower.”
While he can always use more volunteers, he rarely has trouble convincing people to join the cause. This year, Matheu took about 35 volunteers, all traveling at their expense, many using their vacation time. And many return year after year and keep in touch with each other.
Joining him for the first time this year were his granddaughters, Casey and Courtney Matheu, of Frankfort, students at Lincoln-Way East High School. Courtney, who plans to study pre-med next year, wanted a chance to volunteer at a hospital. The experience convinced her to become a pulmonologist, she said.
“I love helping people. This made me want to go to other places to help out,” Courtney, 17, said. “I would go back to Montana in a heartbeat.”
Both girls said being on the Blackfeet reservation for a week also made them appreciate what they have.
“I may complain about having to go to school or do chores, but my problems are minor,” Casey, 15, said. “Helping people less fortunate gives you a good feeling.”
Casey admitted that her mom, Traci Matheu, signed her up for the trip without telling her.
“I wasn’t looking forward to it as much as the others, but it turned out to be the best experience of my life,” she said.
They formed a closer bond with their grandfather and made lasting friendships with other teens on the trip, they said.
Back home, Matheu holds fundraisers, such as his Civil War and World War II exhibits at the McCord Galley in Palos Park, to pay for building supplies for the reservation.
Those who volunteer return home with much more than they gave. They say the experience has enhanced their professional development, rekindled interest in Native Americans, opened their eyes and fulfilled them in new ways.
“At 71, I am too young to stop going,” Matheu said.