Indian Health Service recognizes Thorkelson for work with Navajos

Tuesday, March 27th 2007
| Journal Staff Writer

A Cortez nurse earned a prestigious award recently for her passionate work with diabetic women on the Navajo reservation.

Shelley Thorekson

Shelley Thorkelson, a Cortez resident, and a nurse midwife and diabetes and pregnancy case manager at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M., recently garnered a National Nursing Leadership Council award for her work there.

Care about people

A few of Shelley Thorkelson’s many achievements working with Navajos follow:
• Improvement of the rate of planned postpartum visits from 39 percent to 91 percent.
• Decreased the days elapsed between abnormal testing and treatment of gestational-diabetic mothers from 67 days to 23 days.
• Sought and received training as a sexual-assault nurse examiner.

init(); Shelley Thorkelson, a nurse midwife who’s worked at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M., for 10 years, received the National Nursing Leadership Council Award for Exceptional Performance Feb. 26 in San Diego.

Just four out of 17,000 nurses under the Indian Health Service garnered an NNLC award this year. The NNLC is under the auspices of the Indian Health Service. Dr. Charles W. Grim, IHS director and vice chairman of the Intradepartmental Council on Native American Affairs, presented the award.

Thorkelson doesn’t care for the recognition. She chooses instead to focus on her call to help pregnant American Indian mothers dealing with gestational diabetes.

“I’m not focused on awards — it makes me uncomfortable,” Thorkelson, a Cortez resident, said during a March 20 interview. “When I found out about this, I felt ridiculous. They’re giving me an award for going to work?”

Thorkelson, also a certified diabetes educator, earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Phoenix, her master’s at the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing in Hyden, Ky.

Thorkelson is pleased that her endeavors as gestational diabetes case manager benefit others. Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy.

Pregnant women diagnosed with the condition are sent to Thorkelson, who explains the situation to patients, provides equipment for checking blood-sugar levels and helps ensure a successful pregnancy.

She also helps her clients set goals for stabilizing their blood-sugar, has drug-prescriptive authority and makes recommendations to doctors on matching medications with blood-sugar levels. In addition, Thorkelson issues postpartum weight-loss programs to help patients prevent diabetes in the future.

“Gestational diabetes patients have a 70 percent risk of developing Type 2 diabetes within five years (after a pregnancy),” she said.

Nationally, gestational diabetes affects about 4 percent of pregnancies. But the Navajo Nation figure — at 14 percent — is much higher, Thorkelson said. The Navajo Nation Medical Center alone has about 4,000 diabetic patients in its registry.

In her position, Thorkelson carries an average of 50 patients per month, with a laundry list of about 30 items for each client to follow for good care. They include a postpartum check after six months monitoring glucose tolerance to see whether they’ve developed Type-2 diabetes.

Apart from regular duties, Thorkelson’s accomplishments are legion, said Dr. Kim Mohs, the center’s director of the Diabetes Education and Counseling Center.

“Shelley has taken it (her position) and taken it to a new level,” said Mohs, who nominated Thorkelson for the NNLC award.

In her nomination letter, Mohs fired off a list of Thorkelson’s contributions, including the following:

•Implementation of a post-partum weight-loss program for women to prevent Type 2 diabetes.

•Development of a computerized tracking system for gestational-diabetes cases.

•Improvement of the rate of planned postpartum visits from 39 percent to 91 percent in the center’s Obstetric and Family Medicine Clinic.

•Decreased the days elapsed between abnormal testing and treatment of gestational-diabetic mothers from 67 days to 23 days.

•Gave numerous presentations for the Navajo Nation’s Special Diabetes Program.

•Sought and received training as a sexual-assault nurse examiner.

•Developed a pregnancy tool kit for diabetic mothers that has been sent to IHS headquarters for printing to be used throughout the IHS.

Mohs cited Thorkelson’s other accomplishments in her letter, which are too numerous to fully recap, Mohs wrote.

“It is hard to summarize on only two pages, all of the initiatives and new programs that Ms. Thorkelson has been responsible for in only two years,” Mohs said. “Her efforts have already improved care dramatically at NNMC and are positioned to improve the care of patients with diabetes in pregnancy across the IHS.”

For Thorkelson, her efforts honor the spirit of her late father, who was one-quarter American Indian, with Chickasaw and Choctaw heritage. She also wants to be a caring presence for pregnant women, for whom bad health-care experiences can be especially traumatic.

After all, Thorkelson received bad treatment from an obstetrical nurse while having her first child.

“That was the catalyst that drew me to it,” she said.

Reach John Crane at


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