Every Foot Counts
IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, the circle is significant. It can represent the passage of life, the seasons, the four cardinal directions and the communities of Native people. The circle is particularly symbolic for Shannon Meyer ’88. It is the form her life has taken — from small-town girl who had little contact with Native Americans to life-saving podiatrist who serves the tribal communities of northern Wisconsin.
Meyer grew up in Wabasha, Minnesota, a Mississippi River town of 2,500 residents and arrived at St. Kate’s in 1984 as, she admits, a “not very worldly” student. She had a hard time adjusting to college life and living in a big city, but things changed midway through her first year. She met Carol Storey Newell ’80, then-head coach of the Wildcat track and field team.
“Carol Newell was like a second mother to me,” Meyer says. “She taught me mental toughness, and the meaning of competition. She made such a difference in my life.” Meyer became one of the most successful track and field athletes in St. Kate’s history, earning two All-America citations as a discus thrower.
With biology degree in hand, Meyer went on to earn a master’s degree in exercise science at Colorado State University and began to pursue a Ph.D. in sports medicine. Or so she thought.
When she landed at Des Moines Medical University for her doctorate program, she met Dr. Kham Vay Ung, a podiatrist who would change the course of her career. Ung had a radically different approach to treating the diabetic foot. Instead of standard care that typically includes amputations, he advocated helping diabetics prevent foot infections in the first place. Ung also trained Meyer in surgery techniques that avoided amputation.
It was Ung who told Meyer — and her future husband, David Larsen, also a podiatry student in the program — about the desperate need for podiatric care in tribal communities in northern Wisconsin. Native Americans were experiencing a diabetes epidemic. Rampant poverty and lack of access to healthy food are among factors that put Native Americans at high risk for diabetes and related complications.
Meyer was ready for a new challenge. Along with Larsen, she headed to Wisconsin.
The pair began treating tribal community members with diabetic foot issues as volunteers. Shortly after, they opened a private practice, which they have been running together for 17 years.
Meyer and Larsen currently consult with nine tribes within 150 miles of their home base. They work with patients on primary foot care, such as maintaining calluses and proper nail trimming, which can prevent bigger problems from developing. When complications like ulcers, infection or gangrene occur, they clean affected areas surgically; then let the antibiotics do their work.
“The most important thing is that we never give up,” Meyer says.
With preventative and alternative surgical care, foot amputation is averted in eight of 10 cases. Meyer estimates they have saved thousands of feet, and as she points out, saving feet means saving lives. Meyer has also helped to greatly reduce the number of hospital admissions related to diabetic foot problems.
“Diabetes patients who lose one foot are highly likely to lose the second foot within three to five years,” she says. “Those who lose both feet are at very high risk for dying of heart failure within three years. Saving that first foot prolongs life.” In tribal communities, prolonging or extending a life means keeping a culture alive, Meyer adds.
Equally as impressive are the positive relationships she’s built within tribal communities. This is sometimes a difficult task for an outsider. “Most of our patients call us Shannon and Dave, not Dr. Meyer and Dr. Larsen,” says Meyer, who has a knack for making patients feel at ease. “We don’t approach patients with a high and mighty attitude, we are just everyday people. That builds trust.”
In fact, in 1998, she received an eagle feather — the highest reward from a Native community — for saving a man’s life.
“I like to say, we can’t save them all, but let’s try,” Meyer says. “I like what I do; it’s a really great job. I’m helping people, and that’s what life is all about.”
By the way, Meyer’s coach and mentor — way back when she was at St. Kate’s — was Native American. Coach Newell, however, never saw the impact she made on Meyer, and ultimately her Native culture. She died in September 1989, at 41. Her coaching career at St. Kate’s lasted four short years, the same amount of time Meyer was there.
As Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota holy man, once said, “…the Power of the World always works in circles.” And so too for Meyer’s life; it has come full circle.
ONLINE EXTRA: The Eagle Feather
The eagle feather is the most rewarding gift a Native American community can bestow. It symbolizes trust, honor, wisdom, power and strength.
In 1998, Shannon Meyer, her husband, and Dr. Kham Vay Ung drove over an hour — through a snowstorm in the middle of the night — to reach a dying medicine man in Regina, Saskatchewan. They had learned about him at a pow wow. “He was suffering from diabetes complications [and] he was home waiting to die,” Meyer explains.
When they arrived, the medicine man was lying in a cot in severe pain. He had advanced gangrene on his foot and had refused amputation. In his culture, losing a leg or foot is considered a disgrace. He would rather die than lose his foot, and he had been given no other option.
“We knew we could help him,” Meyer says. “We asked the tribal leaders if we could allocate funds to get him to a hospital in Iowa.”
The tribal leaders approved the group’s request, and “we were able to save his foot,” says Meyer. “[The medicine man] presented each of us with an eagle feather for saving his live.”
“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”
— BLACK ELK, FROM THE BOOK BLACK ELK SPEAKS