Loyola University Chicago

Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing


Respecting patients’ culture and beliefs

Respecting patients’ culture and beliefs

By Maura Sullivan Hill

For Allison Rydberg ’15, Native American culture and tradition are second nature.

Rydberg spent the first nine years of their* life on the Navajo Nation Reservation in northern Arizona, when their father, a doctor, was working with the Indian Health Service, a federal health program for Native Americans and Alaska natives. Then the family moved to Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona, close to the Apache Nation Reservation. Rydberg went to church and volunteered on the reservation, and went to school with Apache Native American children.

“I didn’t realize that was a unique experience until I moved to Chicago,” they said. “Many of the people I met had never been around Native Americans. It was surprising when I would make reference to something about Native American culture and nobody would really understand it. But, different areas have more populations of different types of people. There’s so many other cultures in Chicago that I was not exposed to, soI was really happy to get to experience other types of cultures, races, and ethnicities, too.”

Working with underserved populations

Today, Rydberg is home in Arizona again, working as a physical therapist alongside their father on the same Apache reservation where they spent their childhood years.

“This is the community that I grew up with, and a traditionally oppressed group of people in the U.S., and knowing that I can hopefully make a difference in people’s lives and get them more independent or more mobile, that’s a really cool thing to be involved in,” they said. “More mobility and more independence directly relates to your quality of life.”

Rydberg is serving on the reservation as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service, which is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States—like the Army or Navy—and responds to medical needs. Rydberg says that Loyola’s emphasis on service influenced her decision to enlist.

“I had the opportunity to go on some service immersion trips and do some retreats, and growing in that way during my college experience was a big reason,” they said. “I knew I found fulfillment and enjoyment in serving underserved populations.”

Restoring mobility

Rydberg majored in exercise science and played varsity soccer for four years at Loyola, then earned a doctor of physical therapy at Northwestern University.

“I toyed with the idea of going to medical school, then realized that I am much more interested in human movement and regaining mobility than medicines. The exercise science major at definitely helped me realize that while I was at Loyola,” they said.

Stephanie Wilson, the director of Loyola’s exercise science program, taught Allison in three classes and has kept in touch since graduation.

“Leadership, dedication, demeanor and being a team player are only a few of Allison's amazing qualities. These same attributes will help with her quest to serve underprivileged communities,” Wilson said. “Allison has also made all efforts to serve the exercise science program and Loyola post-graduation, returning on many occasions to serve on alumni panels and at exercise science events.”

Since moving back to Arizona, Rydberg has begun practicing in an outpatient clinic at a hospital near the reservation. The physical therapists at the practice are the primary wound care specialists for the reservation, in addition to more traditional post-surgery and post-injury physical therapy.

“A lot of patients here unfortunately have complications from diabetes, so they get foot ulcers. We will see them two or three times a week to change out the dressings and promote wound healing,” they said. “It’s not in the realm of what people think PTs do, but it helps people get back their mobility.”

Respecting Native American culture

Rydberg’s life on the reservation couldn’t be more different than life in Chicago. They chose Loyola because they wanted to explore a new city and area of the country, but these days are happy to be back home and enjoy hiking near the reservation. The Native American patient population also comes with different challenges than patients in Chicago. These patients often don’t have access to basic things—like running water or electricity—that others take for granted.

“They are a very traditional population, and I have to find a balance of my therapies with their viewpoints, traditions, and culture,” Rydberg said. “I don’t want to break rapport with patients by not respecting their beliefs.”

Once, while working with a patient in the clinic’s gym, they spotted a spider, which is a sacred animal in Apache culture.

“I'm no fan of spiders, so my first instinct was to run up to it and stomp on it, but I realized that this action could be incredibly offensive to the Apache woman I was treating,” Rydberg said. “So I asked my patient, ‘Should I kill it?’ And she replied, ‘No way!’ as if that was the silliest option I could have suggested. Instead, she took the time to find a custodian and ask for a broom, and she swept the spider up into a pan and dumped it outside. I'm so thankful I took a minute to consider how my patient, as an Apache woman, would want to handle this incident. Without cultural sensitivity to the Native American values, I could have ruined my relationship with that patient and insulted a very important aspect of their culture.”

Rydberg not only respects patients’ beliefs, but learns from and appreciates them.

“They have a lot of respect for nature, animals, and their land,” Rydberg said. “And respect for elders and family bonds, even if they are not all blood related—getting to learn all of that has been really cool.”

*Editor’s Note: Rydberg uses the pronouns they/them/their.