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Shana Skillstad

As a health educator for the Weight Management program, I help patients modify their behavior to be healthier. I was blessed to have my own eyes opened to new understandings of my work thanks to four Muslim patients from Saudi Arabia.

When they started the weight loss program, I knew I had to build their trust and a relationship with them if they were to succeed. It can be difficult for patients to modify their diets and exercise habits. Breaking barriers and showing patients I care is my first job.  When they know I care, then they care about what I know.

Our team discussed how to meet their needs and identified these barriers: language (only one of them spoke English), finding a translator for classes, communicating via email and phone, translating printed information, and most importantly, respecting their cultural needs while delivering phenomenal patient care. I created a class just for them, to make them comfortable, build relationships and show them results.  In order to help them be successful, I first had to understand their culture and background.

While Americans of both genders blend well together, a Saudi woman’s culture dictates that she must be very careful about eye contact with and being in the presence of males. One challenge was positioning Saudi ladies on one side of the room while keeping the male interpreter on the other side. Muslim religious practice and beliefs became the foundation of how I could educate them.  I gave them food ideas, broke down recipes, and shared tools for success at home. I spent time translating nutrition food labels and converting their native units of measurement to American measurements, so I could coach them on their calorie consumption.

These wonderful people adapted to American culture (and food) and improved their health. In 13 weeks they lost a total of 140 pounds!

For true success, though, I had to tailor classes toward the culture and environment they would return to after they left Omaha. Back at home, they hold themselves accountable for their weight-loss goals, and I continue to coach them by email,  Skype, and text messages to try to make the 7,000-mile gap between us seem shorter. Since they returned home, the group has lost another 40 pounds!

Shortly after they returned home, I helped them plan how to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.  During this month of fasting, they are not allowed to eat or drink from dawn until sunset, which forced them to abandon some of the encouraged behaviors, they learned in class, like eating small meals every few hours.  Still I coached them on the types of food they should eat when they broke the fast, rather than the traditional dates, bread, deserts, dips and soups served after a fast. In response, they sent me pictures of a table full of food, saying, “We did not eat, Shana.  We have chicken and rice.”

I will be forever grateful for the knowledge and satisfaction I’ve gained by working with them. This opportunity shed new light into my world of health and fitness and opened my eyes to another culture.

How difficult do you think it would be for you and your family to handle a change like this? What weight management resources do you have at your finger tips—maybe because of your culture—that you take for granted?



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