I walked through the hospital doors feeling a bit nervous. Today was my first day on the job. The roof had large window cut-outs, exposing the blue sky. Statues and paintings of Native Americans were displayed throughout the lobby. Women and men were photographed in native clothes, beautiful thick braids below their waist. The land surrounding the hospital was flat and expansive. I got my badge laminated together and headed to the outpatient department, where I would be working for the next 13 weeks.
COVID-19 and Native Americans
A few months ago, I heard on the news how COVID-19 was devastatingly affecting the Native American communities in Northern Arizona. One of my friends was actually working in the inpatient department at the hospital. She told me what it was like living on the reservation and how the hospital needed more nurses. At the time, I was working as a public health nurse in Austin. I had no idea there were clinic nurse travel positions. I thought traveling was limited to hospital nursing. But after reaching out to a recruiter and filling out a ton of paperwork… there I was! 13 hours from home, in the middle of the Navajo reservation with 2 suitcases and 4 jugs of water.
Barriers they face
For the next 13 weeks, I spent the weekdays in the outpatient department and doing drive-thru covid testing. I soon learned some of the barriers this community faced in the presence of COVID-19. Multi-generation family living accelerated the spread of the virus in households. The prevalence of chronic illnesses among the population made it harder for locals to fight and recover from COVID-19. As a result, many people lost loved ones. It was hard on the community and the hospital. So I worked alongside my team, lessening the spread of COVID-19 through education, testing, providing resources for essential supplies, and any other way we could.
The majority of my coworkers were local and permanent employees.
They would tell stories about growing up on the reservation, showed me videos of the different dances they perform for ceremonies. One day, a coworker pulled a piece of corn out of her bag and handed it to me. “I smoked these over the weekend. Do you want one?” I smiled and took a piece. I really enjoyed the contrast to my typical work. Patients were curious, “You must be new here. Where are you from? How do you like living out here?” they would ask. Everyone knew everyone around town, and I was a new face.
The pandemic kept me from knowing my neighbors well.
A simple wave on the side of the streets as we walk past 6 ft apart. But I found ways to entertain myself. On the weekends, I would slip my Nikes on in the morning and go pet the horses behind my house. I would go on hikes, climb up on the giant boulders overlooking the scenery around. You could see the sandy dirt for miles, shrubs decorating the sides of the canyons. In the evening, I would sip on tea, maybe read an old western. Get a soda from the one gas station nearby, drop off some letters at the post office.
There is a peacefulness that exists out there.
I have always been attracted to that. To live somewhere remote, farther from wifi and the accessibility to the things I claim to “need.” It would annoy me at times, but it was an opportunity to see how other people live. I had to buy jugs of water to drink because their water source is contaminated with uranium and arsenic. I had to buy groceries in bulk because it took 2 hours to get there. And inevitably, I would forget something, lettuce or dish soap.
I truly appreciate my time on the Navajo reservation.
I watched sunsets behind the canyon, saw how the pink sky painted the landscape. Saw birds perch on the telephone pole wires, chirping away every evening. Giant ants were crawling on the cemented sidewalks as I walked into work. I learned what the difference between a crow and a raven was. I was welcomed with generosity and learned from the locals. In turn, I was able to contribute my nursing abilities.
I would encourage other nurses to take IHS contracts.
I want to encourage other nurses to take an IHS or other remote contracts. To work with communities that need assistance, especially during COVID-19. I do not in the slightest believe I am now well-versed in Native American culture. I am only beginning to dive in, but I have an awareness I would not otherwise have. An awareness that will continue to influence how I nurse, maybe even the future jobs I pursue. Working on the Navajo reservation caused me to expand my understanding of cultures (especially in the United States) and the barriers underserved communities face. So take a chance, Go on an adventure to a whole other world. You will grow in ways you never imagined.
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