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WahZhaZhe Health Center CMO resigns amid controversy

Dr. Amanda Bighorse, who became the Chief Medical Officer of the WahZhaZhe Health Center seven months ago, announced Feb. 3 that she is resigning from the post.

A prepared release published on the Osage Nation’s website did not say when Bighorse, who is Cherokee and Osage, would depart but did say that she would “work alongside the Osage Nation Health Authority Board to set up a temporary leadership position while the CMO position is being filled.” It said she also will continue to help with the clinic’s accreditation by the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Healthcare. That accreditation is set to expire in late April.

Bighorse, a 2011 graduate of Oklahoma State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, is paid almost $360,000 a year as the CMO of the clinic.

She has come under some fire for her leadership at the clinic, which lost half of its medical providers since she came on board.

Complaints from patients and staff crescendoed to the point that last week the Osage Nation Congress’ Committee on Health and Human Services spent two hours on the issue; it was going to meet again to continue its inquiry on Feb. 2 but was thwarted by the Nation closing due to a winter storm.

Among the many staffers who have left: Dr. Trudy Milner, a longtime doctor who also chairs the OSU Board of Regents, and nurse practitioners Cheri Lawlis and Kim Holt, the latter of whom saw more patients than any other provider. Also gone: Compliance officer Laura Sawney and business officer manager Marjorie Williams. All have landed jobs elsewhere: Milner is at Ascension St. John in Tulsa, Lawlis practices in the Virgin Islands, Holt went to the White Eagle clinic near Ponca City, Sawney is working in Indian health for the Centers for Disease Control Foundation, and Williams took a big promotion with Indian Health Service in Crownpoint, N.M.

Overall, the clinic lost 41 employees in the past year due to resignation (32) or termination (9), with at least 17 of those leaving since July 1. That amounts to more than half of the staff.

Several of those who left complained about Bighorse, saying she ran off providers and skilled staffers to the detriment of patient care.

Patients have also griped that they have been unable to make timely appointments even when urgently needed, have faced barriers getting referrals to specialists, have faced long waits to get vaccinated against Covid, and more.

Among the departed staffers is Jacqualyn Nightengale, the lone radiology technician trained to use the clinic’s $360,000 3D mammography machine that now languishes unused. 

Nightengale echoed many others who have left regarding her disappointment with Bighorse.

“When she got there, I spoke very highly of her,” Nightengale said. “I was very optimistic that we were going to have better communication, that we were going to do better.”

Instead, communication dried up, and Nightengale was stunned when, for the first time in her career, she was given a poor evaluation. “She gave me a 2 on ethics and integrity,” said Nightengale, who was fired after she made a mildly critical statement on Facebook about clinic management generally. “If you want to, you can talk about my attitude, OK. Yes, I’ve got attitude, I like to do things right and I like to do things well. But don’t talk about my ethics and integrity.

“She felt threatened by me. I did my job well.”

Holt, the popular nurse practitioner whom 64 WZZHC patients followed to the White Eagle Clinic, lamented the clinic’s deterioration. “It’s really sad,” Holt said. “It’s hard to get good doctors at Indian facilities, and when she let Dr. Milner go, it was awful. She is a top-of-the-line physician, doctor of the year, an amazing doctor and a huge team player.

“Dr. Milner was really excited to meet Dr. Bighorse. She thought she’d be youthful, energetic.”

Instead, Milner’s contract wasn’t renewed. Said Holt: Bighorse “isn’t going to keep anyone around with confidence.”

Holt had worked with Bighorse when she previously worked at the WZZHC in 2017, said she had warned others that Bighorse wouldn’t be a good fit for the WZZHC.

“Everything that I said she would do to the good staff, she did,” Holt said.

The Nation’s Health Authority Board, which has oversight over the clinic, has stood by Bighorse and supported her. At the board’s meeting last month, Chair Cindra Shangreau said high staff turnover was the plight of all rural clinics and praised Bighorse for elevating Laura Brooks, a nursing assistant, to the clinic’s recruitment and retention officer.

In the Feb. 3 statement announcing Bighorse’s resignation, Shangreau praised her hard work.

“We are grateful for the improvements and dedication Dr. Bighorse has put forth during her time at Osage Nation Health Services,” Shangreau said. “The Board appreciates her commitment to supporting us through the transition and will begin looking for a replacement as quickly as possible.” 

Bighorse, who has been on leave to prepare for her board recertification exam, was also upbeat in the prepared statement.

“I took this position because I was excited to be a part of improving and building healthcare for Osages and Osage community members,” Bighorse said. “I found an incredible group of healthcare workers and staff deeply committed to their patients and community. I remain grateful to those individuals and encourage Osage Nation Congress to support all healthcare workers as they continue to push through after two years in a pandemic.

“We’ve accomplished so much and I hope our community can fully appreciate the extraordinary efforts of these people. Those are the stories that are truly newsworthy.”

On Feb. 3, the Nation was closed due to a snowstorm, but the Health Authority Board called an emergency meeting late in the day. The only substantive item on the agenda was an executive session to discuss clinic “personnel matters.”

Original Publish Date: 2022-02-03 00:00:00


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Louise Red Corn
Louise Red Corn has suffered from wanderlust for decades: She has lived and worked as a journalist and photographer in Rome, Italy, New York City, Detroit, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where she published The Bigheart Times for 12 years. She loves diving in-depth into just about any topic but is especially fond of covering legal issues, perhaps because her parents were both lawyers. She is married to Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn, who enticed her to move to the Osage Reservation in 2004. She and her husband live south of Pawhuska with one extremely large dog named Max, one extremely energetic dog named Pepper, and, if he bothers to make an appearance, a surly cat named Stinky.

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