Jana’s Story: A call for better access to healthcare in rural Minnesota

Published: Jul. 20, 2023 at 5:15 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, MN. (Northern News Now) - A few months ago, Jana Reff’s world was rocked when she received a diagnosis that made her heart drop.

“The doctor was like, ‘You’re in kidney failure, stage five, your kidneys are functioning at about 10% right now.’” said Reff.

Reff is a single mother of two teenagers and a full-time resident of International Falls, Minnesota. While the diagnosis was tough to hear, it’s not an uncommon one for people in her situation.

“I was diagnosed with diabetes at age 12. They started me off as a type two, but now I’m a type one, which is insulin-dependent,” she said. “With that comes chronic kidney disease.”

The diagnosis began a months-long process of extensive treatment, much of which Reff is still in the middle of.

For major procedures, she has had to travel three hours from International Falls to Duluth.

Once she reaches a certain stage in her treatment, she will need to begin dialysis multiple times per week, a process that also carries a hefty commute.

“I’m gonna have to start doing dialysis treatment, which will be three times a week out of town in Eveleth, which is like a two-hour drive for me,” she said.

Despite the difficulty of her situation, Reff hasn’t been alone. Along with help from her two kids, Reff has received the support of her friend Charity Alverson.

Alverson helped set up a GoFundMe for Reff and her kids, raising roughly $1,500 so far to help cover medical and travel costs.

She has also played a hands-on role in getting Jana to and from her appointments.

“It’s been difficult, sometimes scheduling for doctor’s trips, but I’m there for her absolutely as much as I can be,” said Alverson.

Unfortunately, Reff’s lack of proximity to a medical center isn’t unique for those living in rural Minnesota.

Essentia's new St. Mary's Medical Center
Essentia's new St. Mary's Medical Center(Northern News Now)

“I represent one of the most rural isolated districts in the state. We have hospitals in Grand Marais, Cook, and Big Fork. All of those facilities are critical access facilities that provide care for these rural communities, and all of them are facing challenges,” said Senator Grant Hauschild (D - Hermantown).

Hauschild represents Minnesota’s 3rd District, which stretches from just north of Duluth to the international border.

Hauschild acknowledged there’s a long way to go before rural healthcare is on the same level as it is in the city.

Still, certain investments made in St. Paul this year were an attempt to tackle the issue.

“One of them was for a medical database purchase for our critical access hospitals in the Northland. It would help them connect with some of these regional hospital systems to provide patient information and care and increase the quality that they provide,” said Hauschild.

Other initiatives involved staffing and funding for critical care.

“[There’s] an apprenticeship program for CNAs and medical staff, to try to recruit them to rural areas, and a grant program for that, and then the third was a grant to our critical access hospitals and clinics to help provide them funding that they need in order to continue to operate and stay open,” Hauschild said.

The rural healthcare gap is a problem even hospital executives are aware of, and while they can’t do much in the way of physical care without a building and staff to operate it, they’re working on new ways to bring care to outstate patients.

“We know it’s really hard for patients to drive, say from International Falls,” said Dr. Bill Heegaard, President of Essentia Health’s East Market, “If we can provide that care by telehealth and telemedicine, we’re going to do it that way, because it’s better for patients, and it gives them better access.”

All sides involved know the current solutions are band-aids to a much larger wound, but there appears to be motivation to close the gap even further during next year’s legislative session.

“I am working with the Democrats on this because obviously, they have the power now, but I’m all in on some way to help with this rural issue,” said Representative Roger Skraba (R - Ely).

“We have some of the best hospitals in the world in our state, some of the longest-living people in Minnesota, but there are always ways that we can target where we need resources most, which is often in our rural communities. We’d find bipartisan support for that,” said Hauschild.

While the northern parts of the state await more thorough healthcare options, Reff remains patient and optimistic about her own outlook.

“You’ve got to look on the brighter side of things. I mean, I’m not dead,” she said, “I’m still here, still living and breathing and taking care of my children.”

Reff said close friendships like the one she has with Alverson are keeping her going.

“Jana is like a sister to me and always will be. I mean, I’ve got her, she knows I do,” said Alverson.

“She’s literally been my rock. Like anything I need. She’s a godsend really,” said Reff.

Click here to download the Northern News Now app or our Northern News Now First Alert weather app.