Archive for the ‘Indian Health Service’ Category

Memories of housecalls in Navajoland

November 8, 2010

Yes, you could call me a vet;
I enjoy the bennies I get.
     I’m a PHS man
     No risk I ran
Not like the others I met.

I went to the Sioux City Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic this morning.
Most of the vets waited for a lab blood draw, some wanted flu shots. I chatted with three friends while we waited.

I made the diagnosis of PTSD in the vets with the “thousand-yard stare.” Too many smelled of cigarettes, too many without beards hadn’t shaved.

Next to them I felt an imposter. I owned a Public Health Service uniform when I worked for the Indian Health Service from 1982 to 1987, thereby attaining veteran’s benefits. I ran little risk while I served my country; no one trained me in weapons and no one pointed a gun at me.

I made about one-quarter the money I would have earned in the private sector when I worked for the government, but what I learned and experienced gave me treasures beyond price.

While serving in New Mexico, I worked an outlying clinic for the Canoncito Band of Navajo. In 1954 the government sent the tribe a clinic construction kit; thirty years later I talked with one of the builders. Looking at blue prints after construction started, they realized they had to disassemble the building to install the plumbing.
The clinic served well but the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who ran the school, wanted the land where the clinic stood for a new school, housing for the teachers, and landscaping.

I said, You’ll build the school and then the housing, and then put in the landscaping?

No, they said, first we tear down the clinic.

Where will I work? I asked.

We will build you a new clinic.

So, I said, first you build a new clinic?

No, they said, first we tear down the clinic.

I thought Great White Father had forgotten me (I should be so lucky) for six months, until bulldozers surrounded the clinic.

My boss said I could sit in the hospital library and read till the new clinic got built. That plan worked for two days thenI felt my temper start to fray. Two weeks of inactivity compromised my functions as a loving husband and father.

I started making house calls with the Public Health Nurse. I saw no more than eight patients a day, but I got to immerse myself in the Navajo world.

At that time 85% of the dwellings (round houses called hogans) lacked running water and electricity.

On the job, I watched one of my patients break horses and realized why he ignored my advice to lose weight.

Another patient, always demented and disoriented in the clinic, smiled and cracked jokes in Navajo, showing his memory functioned well at home.

I visited an elderly couple who had been married in name only for many years but had stayed in the same hogan while their children, then grandchildren, grew to adulthood. I saw the generations caring for each other in the ground-level drama and irony of the human condition.

Two months later I started working in a double wide trailer and stayed there eight months when the actual new clinic happened.

I learned that I do better in a situation of work without pay than in a situation of pay without work.