Smudging ceremonies help Native American patients heal

Sylvia Winanz

Mayo Clinic is committed to meeting patient needs, including their spiritual needs. For many Native American patients, that includes a healing ceremony called smudging. Valerie Guimaraes, a patient experience ambassador, helps coordinate smudgings and provides other support to Native American patients.

Sylvia Winanz's hospital room at Mayo Clinic was full of state-of-the-art medical equipment keeping her alive while she waited for a liver transplant. The infant's room also held something that has helped her ancestors — members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes — heal for generations: a small sachet of sage.

"Valerie made that for her and pinned it on her crib," says Sylvia's grandmother, Daisy Fargoza. "She helped me pray for Sylvia."

"Valerie" is Valerie Guimaraes, Mayo's first patient experience ambassador dedicated to working with Native American patients. Guimaraes, a member of the Ho-Chunk and Dakota nations, has a deep and personal understanding of the unique needs of Native American patients. Helping meet those needs, especially those for spiritual care, is "one of the highlights of my job," she says.

Guimaraes came to this role in 2018 during Mayo Clinic's reparation efforts with the Santee Dakota tribe. Those efforts were spearheaded by Jeff Bolton, then Mayo's chief administrative officer, who came to recognize the need for Mayo to better serve Native American patients. He asked Guimaraes, a nurse at Charter House who had unofficially supported Native American patients for years, to take on the role of patient ambassador. She gladly accepted.

Guimaraes' work often begins with a frantic phone call from a patient's family member.

"Many of our Native patients come here emergently by ambulance or helicopter," she says. "Their families want someone to sit with the patient until a loved one arrives. Culturally, we cannot leave anyone alone."

"Mayo Clinic can be very proud of what it's doing to meet the needs of our Native American patients."

Valerie Guimaraes

Guimaraes has helped care for patients from more than 40 sovereign nations, offering companionship and comfort. She also offers patients sachets, like the one she gave to Sylvia Winanz, filled with sage to promote healing. Some patients keep the sachets. Others burn the sage inside to release healing smoke. This process, called smudging, is a spiritual practice designed to heal the body, mind and spirit.

In Rochester, smudging ceremonies often take place in the Art Owen Smudging Room. The room, on the Saint Marys Campus of Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester, is named in honor of a Native American spiritual healer who cared for patients at Mayo Clinic.

"Whenever I called Art about a patient, he would drop everything and come," Guimaraes says.

Sylvia Winanz

It's what he did when Guimaraes called him about little Sylvia.

"Art Owen prayed for her twice while we waited for a liver," Daisy says. "It was a really strong and powerful experience."

In addition to her work caring for patients on campus, Guimaraes conducts outreach to 11 tribal nations in Minnesota. She assesses the needs of each tribe and provides resources, such as COVID test kits, to the reservations. She also gets to know the healers in each tribe so she can consult with them when their members are hospitalized. And she provides education on Native American spiritual practices to Mayo's nursing staff and chaplains.

"Mayo Clinic can be very proud of what it's doing to meet the needs of our Native American patients," Guimaraes says. "Isn't it wonderful to know that our patients are able to have their spiritual needs met here?"

For Daisy Fargoza, the answer is yes.

"Being able to have smudging and prayers for Sylvia while we were at Mayo made us feel more comfortable," she says. "It gave us a sense of being at home."

Editor’s note: Sylvia ultimately received her transplant and recently returned home to North Dakota.