Tulalip health clinic renamed to honor dedicated leader

TULALIP — In the early 1980s, Karen Fryberg got laid off from her job at the Tulalip health clinic.

Now the clinic is named for her.

The intervening years saw Fryberg get rehired to be the clinic’s director, and under her guidance the clinic grow from a tiny building with five employees to a $9 million building on Tulalip Bay with more than 80 people working there.

More importantly, Fryberg said, the clinic provides many more services to tribal members than it ever could before.

“I think the main thing was that we just needed to build on our program and provide services for our members that they could be proud of,” she said.

Fryberg, 59, retired from the clinic in May. Last month, the clinic was renamed the Tulalip Karen I. Fryberg Health Clinic. A tribal ceremony was held to mark the occasion and Fryberg was given a certificate to thank her for her 32 years of service.

In 1980, she was hired as a supervisor at the small clinic. Soon afterward, she and the administrator were laid off because the federal grant that funded their positions was cut.

The Tulalips quickly reopened the clinic on their own and rehired Fryberg to run the operation because she wouldn’t have to be paid as much as the former administrator. She made $7 an hour.

Two nurse practitioners provided all the service in those days, she said. Men never visited the clinic and no prenatal care was available for pregnant women.

There were no nurses to provide assistance. X-rays and other lab work had to be done off site.

Slowly, staff and services were added. The clinic moved to a set of five trailers in Marysville and stayed there for 12 years.

Fryberg wanted a new building.

“I was the one that got to plan the whole thing, I brought it to (tribal membership) to ask them to build it,” she said.

Fryberg made sure the clinic saved what little profit it made from insurance payouts, said Tammy Dehnhoff, who manages the dental office in the clinic. Those savings were eventually used to match contributions from the tribal and federal governments, she said.

Without Fryberg’s leadership, the building might not have been built, or it would have taken much longer, Dehnhoff said.

“Her heart has always been with the tribal members; she just had a great vision for the health clinic,” she said.

Planning began in 1998 and the building opened in 2003. It has four doctors, a nursing staff, several specialists, three dentists and an orthodontist. It also has a full laboratory and preventative care program.

Fryberg started an annual health fair, at which free screenings were provided, “and it grew from that to children’s fairs, men’s fairs, women’s fairs,” Dehnhoff said.

Tribal board chairman Mel Sheldon, Jr. knows about the importance of the screenings.

About four years ago he attended a men’s health fair and received a screening, to set an example as a board member if for no other reason, he said.

He found out he had prostate cancer. He’d had no symptoms, he said. They caught it early.

“It could have gone another couple of years before I figured it out,” Sheldon said. He received treatment and is fully recovered, he said.

Three other tribal board members in recent years have had cancer detected early by the free screenings, according to Dehnhoff.

The preventative care has made a big difference for the tribes, Fryberg said.

“I think people realize they need to do those kinds of things to stay healthy,” she said. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Fryberg herself had cancer surgery last year and has recovered, but one of her hips suffered some damage and it’s harder for her to get around. She didn’t want to retire from the clinic but had no choice, she said.

“It’s been a big part of my life, and it was hard for me to leave,” Fryberg said.

Dehnhoff, who has worked with Fryberg the past 18 years, said Fryberg taught her to treat every patient as if it was her own grandmother.

“Wouldn’t you want to give your grandma the best?” she said. “That’s a high place of honor for anyone, it doesn’t matter what culture you are.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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