Doctor Rita

Anchorage Daily News - Sunday, October 15, 2000

By Ann Potempa, Daily News Reporter

This article used with permission of the publisher -  for educational purposes only.

One patient had just left. Another was due in an hour. Rita Blumenstein -- Doctor Blumenstein -- sat in her easy chair and recalled her first memory of healing someone, the day almost 60 years ago when she prevented an infection from dog bites. The patient was her mother.

Rita was 4 years old.

Dim lamps lit the doctor's office while a nearby fountain bubbled along with the soft music and the sound of her voice. It was Halloween, she remembered. Home was the Yup'ik village of Tununak on Nelson Island. While she was at a school party with her aunt, dogs attacked her mother.

"We come home after the party and my mom was moaning and groaning in the house in the bed. My whole being wanted to go to my mom. I went up to the bed. I put my hands, my little hands, onto the wounds."

A tired feeling crept up to her shoulders, she said, dragging her hands up her arms to show how it felt years ago. At her mother's bedside, Rita released her hands and shook them, as if throwing away the fatigue. She laid her hands on her mother again. The tired feeling crawled to her elbows. She let go and shook it away. She laid her hands on again and again. And then it was over.

"And after that," Rita said, "I don't remember."

DIFFICULT GIFT

Now, decades later, Rita is the first certified tribal doctor to practice at Anchorage's Primary Care Center of the Southcentral Foundation, the nonprofit affiliate of Cook Inlet Region Inc. Her colleagues believe she could be the first certified healer of her kind in Alaska, but they don't deny there were people before Rita who had similar abilities. American Natives treated people with traditional techniques for many generations until missionaries and government agents began challenging tribal healing, sending it underground.

Rita is one healer who's bringing traditional healing out in the open again, saying it can be used with modern medicine to treat the whole person. Indian Health Services took a similar stand in 1998 when its director stated that traditional healing practices should be "respected and affirmed" and considered an important part of a person's healing process. A number of IHS facilities and tribally operated programs have even hired traditional healers.

Physicians who practice in Alaska must have a license from the State Medical Board. Leslie Abel, executive administrator for the board, said her organization doesn't award such approval until it has examined documents about a physician's education, postgraduate training, scores on examinations and malpractice history.

Rita, however, is not an M.D. She never went to medical school, never had postgraduate training and didn't take tests. Even so, an elders' council with Southcentral Foundation certified her based on the healing ability Rita says she's had since birth.

"That's my natural occupation," she said.

Nobody seems to understand where Rita's knowledge comes from, not even Rita. Her ability comes in spurts, she said, almost like she's awake for an instant and filled with the knowledge she needs, and then she's dreaming -- until it happens again.

Bernie Blumenstein, Rita's husband for almost 40 years, doesn't remember talking about her healing abilities that much. When they met, Bernie was an electronics technician, originally from New York City, and Rita was a health aide in Bethel. After they married, Rita focused on other tasks. She raised two children and several grandchildren and taught people basket-weaving, skin-sewing and other traditional practices she learned while growing up.

Bernie watched his wife accomplish many things, and over the years her healing ability just started seeping out. There was the time she eased the pain in his leg. Then someone needed her help to relieve migraines. And sometimes, when they were sitting in a room full of people, Rita would get the feeling that somebody needed her help.

"I didn't know she had all these hidden talents," Bernie said. "Where she got it, your guess is as good as mine."

Others have tried to describe Rita's healing ability, coming up with something like this: Some trained doctors know what they know because they've sat through college classes, practiced during internships and residencies, and earned medical degrees. Rita hasn't done any of that, yet she knows what she knows because the information just comes directly to her. With Rita, there's no middleman.

Her schooling came with obstacles few med students ever encounter. When she was growing up on Nelson Island, some people thought her gift was evil, or devil's work. Kids threw rocks at her.

"What do you think you are?" they asked.

"I don't know," was all Rita could say in reply.

But that didn't faze her. Her mother and grandmother said, "Don't fight back. Let them beat you up. You'll survive."

Marie Meade grew up in Nunapitchuk, a village between Bethel and Nelson Island. She's seen Rita as a patient and understands what a traditional healer like her had to endure during the post-contact era. Even today, Meade said, people misunderstand traditional healing, comparing it to shamanism.

"In my own upbringing, my generation thought even angalkuq, the word for shaman, was taboo," Meade said. "The elders didn't want to talk about it. The parents didn't want to mention it."

Rita does talk about her work now, though she and other program directors are selective about what they share. Even now, even though she's been certified, the program's staff allows her to practice only some techniques.

Bob Morgan, who helped plan the traditional healing program, believes Rita should be credited for her patience, for her ability to refrain from using all of her knowledge until people have a chance to become comfortable with the program she's developing. Asking a qualified tribal doctor like Rita to hold back is like asking a physician with decades of experience to work as an intern, he said.

"She left her ego outside, and she came in to do this because she, like us, understood that doors had to be opened carefully."

CERTIFICATION

Rita doesn't advertise, but people seem to track her down.

"She never looked for a job," Bernie Blumenstein said. "People always came looking for her."

As the traditional-healing program at Southcentral Foundation started coming together during the past decade, the staff asked Rita to become a traditional healer. The offer came with two conditions: It was part time, and she wouldn't hold an official title. Rita filled her schedule by developing plans for the program, training other healers and attending conferences. Her temporary contract expired, and the foundation hired her back again.

Finally, the foundation decided to expand the program to include a doctor who could practice healing techniques. Morgan said his staff didn't have a certification process in place, so they created one.

First, the Alaska Native Medical Center's Joint Operating Board approved a tribal-healer job description, setting the standards for healing practices that could and could not be done at the hospital. Then the traditional healing program created an Elders' Council, a group composed mainly of Alaska Natives, to approve decisions. Morgan's staff presented Rita to the council as the first person to be evaluated.

The elders felt that if Rita was certified, the job title would be important. "Tribal doctor" would make her an equal partner with modern doctors and allow Rita and other physicians to refer patients to one another.

The elders examined Rita's background, her ability to heal and her reputation, then approved her unanimously, Morgan said. In 1999, Rita became certified and was finally allowed to practice traditional healing inside a medical facility.

Rita doesn't really like to be called a tribal doctor, even though that's what's printed on her business cards. She probably would have typed "friend" instead.

Rita soon discovered that certification wasn't blanket approval to open up shop and start sharing her healing techniques with the world. Her supervisors can still tell her what she can and can't do.

She is allowed to work with modern physicians, accepting referrals from them and sending patients back when they need treatment she cannot provide. She can employ what she calls manipulation, a technique that uses touch and resembles massage or chiropractic work.

Sophia Chase, chairman of the board for Southcentral Foundation, said she watched Rita use touch to treat a friend of hers years ago. Rita invited them to her home for lunch. Afterward, she felt the friend's abdomen, told him where he had bleeding ulcers and prescribed a treatment. Chase said her friend's ulcers are no longer a problem. Chase herself continues to see Rita regularly as a patient.

But although she's studied herbs and has even used them to heal ailments, the program won't allow her to use that ability -- yet. The staff is concerned that her prescribed herbs could react badly with other medications.

Dr. Douglas Eby, vice president of medical services for Southcentral Foundation, said she's also not allowed to puncture a patient's skin. For now, she can tend outpatients but not inpatients at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

"That's not to say she won't in the future," he said. "It's one of the areas we hope to be discussing in this upcoming year."

OPENING OLD SCARS

Straddling the traditional and modern worlds is something Rita does every day. One day, she comes to work in a kuspuk with a Native drum in hand. Another day, she's trudging through the tall grasses of her healing place near Palmer, wearing fleece and blue jeans.

Bob Chaney, a psychologist at Southcentral Foundation's Primary Care Center, is one physician who's comfortable allowing his patients to use both modern and traditional healing techniques. He said he refers patients to Rita because he appreciates her approach.

"I think what she reminds us of is the world functions really as a whole," he said. "Our body functions as a whole."

Rita said she works with all parts of her patients -- physical, spiritual and emotional. But she keeps what she does behind office doors confidential, like any doctor would, and won't let outsiders satisfy their curiosity by watching her heal a patient.

What I do is not for show, she said.

She also wants to avoid interference when she's gaining her patients' trust. Her techniques only work, she said, when patients are willing to let them.

"I don't work with them until they open," she said.

When that happens, Rita can feel inside problems from the outside.

"I touch them where they hurt. Old scars come out. Old wounds."

The traditional-healing program is still moving forward. Staff members are awaiting more space to practice, which they expect to get when the expanded Primary Care Center is completed next year. Morgan said he also expects more tribal doctors to join Rita's practice in the next few years. Rita hopes she will be able to expand her practice as well.

While many people her age are retiring and picking up hobbies to fill their time, Rita is working 30 hours a week and finally getting paid -- and often respected -- for what she's been doing all her life.

"Just because I didn't learn it doesn't mean I didn't earn it," she said.

As she realized that her next patient was about to arrive, Rita wrapped up her stories by sharing what she calls her best piece of therapy: Each and every one of us needs to learn who we are.

She's figured that one out for herself already.

"I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."

Reporter Ann Potempa can be reached at apotempa@adn.com.