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Focus on Rural Health

Gray's Travel Challenges Reap Rewards, Especially During COVID-19

By Brenda Haugen on

Jacque Gray, PhD

Jacque Gray, PhD, remembers her post-doc interview with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center like it was yesterday. Thunderstorms in the Midwest delayed her flight out of Minneapolis, but eventually she landed safely late at night in St. Louis, where she was to catch the last leg of her flight. But when gate personnel started disappearing and the lights dimmed, Gray knew she wasn't going to make the interview.

"They had booked me on TWA, and TWA ceased to exist at midnight that night," Gray explained.

They had booked me on TWA, and TWA ceased to exist at midnight that night.

Though she was able to join the group for the interview later that day, Gray didn't get the post-doc. But Oklahoma's loss was the University of North Dakota's gain when she was hired at the Center for Rural Health (CRH) at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences in 2004. She currently serves as a research associate professor for the Department of Population Health and the associate director of CRH for Indigenous Programs.

One of Gray's first trips came shortly after she started at CRH and was just a small taste of what travel would be like for her during her career. She presented on the psychological effects of trauma at the 2005 Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health in Bismarck, North Dakota.

"I had no money to travel on, so I had to drive to Bismarck, present, and drive back all in one day by myself," she said.

Weather Woes

If you travel from the Midwest as much as Gray does, you're going to run into weather issues. Among the most memorable for Gray involved a trip to Anchorage, Alaska, in April 2018.

Gray traveled to Alaska for a statewide training where she'd teach participants about elder abuse. The weather that week was beautiful – a solid 25 degrees warmer each day than it was in Grand Forks. But the flights home wouldn't be as nice. Once Gray reached Minneapolis, the airport closed due to a blizzard.

"We were stranded there for two days," she said. Gray ended up changing her flight from Grand Forks to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she was slated to speak at the Collaborative Research Center for American Indian Health Summit. "Over the years, I've learned to roll with things a lot more. There's no point in getting upset about things. It is what it is. You'll get where you need to be when you get there, and you do whatever you can in the meantime."

Unfortunately, her luggage had traveled on without her back to North Dakota, but it did reach her before her presentation, also thanks to the weather.

"They canceled the first day of the conference because the other speakers couldn't get in," Gray said.

Taking Her Message Overseas

Keri Lawson-TeAho and Jacque Gray
Keri Lawson-TeAho and Jacque Gray

Gray's message hasn't been confined to just the 50 states. Keri Lawson-TeAho, a colleague from the Society of Indian Psychologists, invited Gray to speak at an Indigenous suicide prevention conference she was organizing in New Zealand in 2014. The event was supposed to be held in a classroom, but interest kept growing and they had to find bigger and bigger venues. With more than 700 people in attendance – including the prime minister of New Zealand – the event ended up being held in a warehouse. "It was a huge event," Gray said.

Gray spent a month interacting with faculty and students at the Center for Maori Health at the medical school in Wellington. She talked with students about the cultural aspects of treating patients and learned about the Maori culture. She also presented on suicide prevention and student development.

"The second time was very different," she said of her month-long trip to New Zealand in 2015. "I actually flew into Auckland with their World Cup-winning soccer team. So here were all these people at the gate to welcome them, and I come out in the midst of all this to find a person I did not know who was taking me to the house I was going to stay at that night [with people] I also did not know."

This trip, Gray met with students at the University of Auckland and talked about suicide and elder abuse. She stayed with a person whose father was the most renowned anthropologist in New Zealand history, and as luck would have it, the next day as she was taking Gray to another university to speak, they were able to stop where a 1,500-year-old canoe had been discovered.

"It was just a miracle that it didn't end up as driftwood," Gray said.

A small group recovered the canoe and was preserving it. Gray's host had been invited to a special ceremony where the canoe was to be measured, and Gray was able to attend, too. "That was just an unbelievable moment to be a part of that," she said. "There were only about 10 people there."

These were people I've never met before, and I was staying at their houses and going to all of these phenomenal events.

She also was invited to a marae, a tribal meeting grounds where a suicide-prevention retreat involving 60 suicidal youth was to be held. When the youth's mental health professional was unable to attend the event, Gray was asked to step in, and she did. She said she learned a lot from the young people and the elders in attendance and was honored to be a part of the event.

"These were people I've never met before, and I was staying at their houses and going to all of these phenomenal events," Gray said.

Making Connections

As the principle investigator and director of the National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative, Gray has traveled to remote areas across the U.S. to share her expertise as well. "It's important to see the situation to know what will work or not work for the people in their locations," she said.

While presenting on elder abuse prevention in Fairbanks, Alaska, Gray was asked to bring her presentation to Nulato, Alaska, for a conference they were planning in 2019. Another person attending the Fairbanks conference said she had a house in Nulato, and Gray could stay with her. Knowing the community was comprised of no more than 400 people and didn't have a hotel, Gray agreed.

"As it turns out, her daughter was in the hospital, so she was there with her [at the time of the Nulato conference]," Gray said. "She arranged for a friend of hers to take the keys and open the house up."

Gray thought she was set. She'd have the use of a car and internet service. But getting to Nulato was going to be tricky. The 700 people the conference attracted traveled by boat or small planes. Gray opted for a nine-passenger plane. The end of the flight was something she'll never forget.

"We landed on this dirt and gravel strip on the top of a mountain that had been leveled off," she said.

Transportation from the landing strip was a small school bus. "You had to get your own luggage and drag it over to the bus," Gray said.

The bus took the passengers to the school where the conference was to be held. Gray asked about the woman who was supposed to meet her there with the house keys, and the school's administrator said he would look into it. He discovered this woman was still in Fairbanks and hadn't been able to get a flight to Nulato yet. She was on standby for an empty seat but the weekend before had given the keys to the administrator's brother.

"That's kind of the way things are in Alaska," Gray said with a chuckle. "After doing some more checking, the administrator came back and said, 'We have some good news and some bad news. The good news is I know where the keys are. The bad news is my brother has them. They're in his pocket. He's in Las Vegas.' He had gone on vacation and forgot he had the keys in his pocket."

The school was set up as a makeshift hotel for the conference. The men slept in one classroom, women in another, and adolescents in a third. People slept on the floor in sleeping bags they had brought with them. Of course, Gray hadn't prepared for these accommodations.

"They got people in the community to come up with a sleeping bag and a cot for me," she said.

Gray spent a week in Nulato with little connection to the outside world. The only internet was on a cycle from 5:00 to 9:00 pm so students could do their homework.

It gave me a new appreciation for some of the struggles in the villages.

"It took all evening to send a couple of pictures because the bandwidth was all taken up," Gray recalled. "It gave me a new appreciation for some of the struggles in the villages."

The classrooms were all down one hallway. In the middle of the school, food and coffee were served. "We had moose and salmon at every meal," Gray said.

It was during one of these meals that Gray realized she was a celebrity in local circles.

"I was standing in line for a meal one of the days and was talking to the people around me, and this woman standing in front of me turned around and said, 'I know that voice.' She says, 'Who are you? Are you someone famous? I know your voice,'" Gray said. Eventually the woman realized she'd heard a webinar Gray had done. "She had to give me a big hug. It was like I was a rock star because I had done a webinar, and I was in Nulato. Every time she saw me, she had to give me a hug and tell me how happy she was that I was there."

"I was invited back the following year, but then COVID hit."

Gray said reactions like that makes difficult journeys worth it.

"They were really happy that I was there," she said. "I was invited back the following year, but then COVID hit."

The Importance of Relationships

The relationships built before COVID-19 have proved especially important since the pandemic started. Gray has participated in a number of Zoom conferences and trainings and finds people are engaged because of the relationships she has already built.

She's also looking at recording presentations and putting them online to make the information more readily available to those who need it. In addition, she's examining creating DVDs for more remote areas, such as Nulato, which don't have easy access to the internet but still have training needs.

Gray also participates in Friday phone calls – hosted by the Administration for Community Living – with Title VI programs. During the calls, she's able to hear what's going on with the Title VI grantees and the 460 tribes they represent. In addition, NIEJI sends out resources, such as fact sheets on elder abuse and COVID-19 resources, to organizations that have limited internet access. These materials often accompany meals delivered to elders.

Because they know her, Gray finds that organizations are comfortable reaching out to request materials when they have a need. Such was the case with Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council (GLITC).

"The person from GLITC contacted me and asked, 'Do you have something general on elder abuse that we can send out,' and we didn't have anything," Gray said. "So we made a new poster."

These resources will still be available to everyone, even after Gray's travel schedule resumes and she's able to continue the relationships she's built through the years in person.

Brenda Haugen Brenda Haugen is the communications specialist at the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota (UND) School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Grand Forks.