Dr. Lori Arviso-Alvord

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between the broken umber mesas and vast sky of the Navajo Reservation, and the chrome and laser world in the high-tech operating rooms of the Gallup Indian Medical Center. But the two dramatically disparate worlds are linked by a petite 34 year old woman who play on those craggy red mesas as a child. As an adult, Dr. Lori Arviso-Alvord has become the first Navajo woman to become a Surgeon.

Leaning over her patients in a darkened operating room, she expertly maneuvers minuscule, state-of-the-art laparoscopic equipment to remove gallbladders or gall stones, repair trauma injuries or excise tumors, guiding her movements by watching the blue glow of a television monitor above.

She’ll tell you without a moment’s hesitation - she loves being a Surgeon. “I have worked with a lot os Surgeons and for some of them, it’s like auto mechanics, they work on people the way you’d work on a car.”, Arviso-Alvord says, “but for me, maybe because of being Navajo, it is spiritual”. She describes the experience of performing surgery with reverence: “You have your hands inside another person’s body, you hold their life in yours.”

Arvisor-Alvord, who graduated from Stanford Medical School in 1990, mixes her Navajo beliefs with what she learned there of traditional Western medicine, and has created a bedside manner and style of medicine all her own. Call it holistic, New Age, quasi-religious or what you will, it is a unique blend of cultures and science that brings comfort to her patients. Many Navajos who would distrust Western doctors feel safe in her hands.

“In the Navajo world, there is an emphasis on connectedness, how you relate to everything around you, we call it Nizoni, which translates as “walking in beauty”, Arvisor-Alvord explains. “I think surgery relates directly to this. I know that my actions directly alter the course of my patients’ lives and I take this into account during an operation”.

Integrating the Navajo world with the non-Navajo world has been a life struggle for her. Although her father was Navajo and she was raised on the reservation near Crownpoint, her mother is white, and English was the first language spoken in her home. While some might think a mixed heritage might account for her extraordinary accomplishments. Arviso-Alvord sees it differently: “My biggest role model was my paternal grandmother, Grace Cupp, who was a teacher and principal at the Bureau of Indian Affairs School at White horse Lake on the reservation for 40 years. I saw early that a woman could work at a job and make a difference in people’s lives.” She had virtually no other Navajo role models. When she was growing up she never met a Navajo doctor, a Navajo lawyer of a Navajo engineer.

But the surgeon also claims the Navajo culture itself, which is matrilineal and matrilocal, gave her strength and confidence as a woman. There are more than 130 clans in the Navajo world and their identities are based on women. “You identify yourself by saying, “I am from such and such clan, and that would be your mother’s,”, she says.

Once she entered medical school, she knew right away what her goal would be: to bring the skills she learned home, to treat her own people. But entering the white world, first at Dartmouth College, and later at Stanford Medical School, was not always easy for her.

Arviso-Alvord believes she got into Dartmouth on a fluke. Another student in high school handed her a stack of college applications and she filled out one and sent it in “because the campus looked green and pretty”.

She was surprised to find that not only was she accepted, but given a full scholarship. She knew her grades were fine, but competition for a school like Dartmouth is high. Today she hypothesizes that it might have been that Dartmouth was trying to mend a sorry reputation for its treatment of women and minorities, especially Native Americans.

Although Dartmouth was chartered in the 1700s by the King of England specifically for the education of the native people of the Americas, it was a mandate the school did not honor until the 1970s. By the 1980s, when Arviso-Alvord was a student, there was a fledgling group of Native American students from all over the country, and a Native American Studies department finally had been initiated.

The surgeon looks back at her years there as bittersweet. ON the one hand she loved the education she received, as well as being introduced to other Native Americans, the group of about 30 from all over the Americas who forged a real sense of community. ON the other hand, the school’s unofficial mascot, a tiny red man with a loin cloth and headdress, that stared off of notebooks and jackets, made the Native American student feel their cultures were degraded.

“What a lot of time we lost just trying to make them understand why we found this silly icon offensive,” Arviso-Alvord says. She also says she never felt at home with the non-Indian students there.

Back in Albuquerque after graduation, she found out her Ivy League degree didn’t help much in getting a job in the recessionary climate of the early '80s. The only job she could find was as a lab technician at the University of New Mexico for $4 an hour, but it was her boss there who suggested she consider medical school.

Influenced by the emerging pressures of political correctness, Stanford, like Dartmouth, was eager to accept a bright woman eager who was Native American. It was at Stanford that Arviso-Alvord finally found her raison d’être” surgery. She had fallen in love, assisting in more than 1,100 successful operations at the university. She’s been collecting laurels ever since. In 1992, Arviso-Alvord was one of 30 recipients of the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Outstanding Women. In 1993, she was appointed to a National Institute of Health Task Force on the Recruitment and Retention of Women in Clinical Research.

Surgery still is dominated by men. For a Navajo woman to become a Surgeon is by all measures extraordinary. But even more extraordinary is the new genre of bicultural medicine that she is striving to forge in the Angle-run medical center in Gallup. She has encouraged the hospital to hire a staff hataalii, or Navajo medicine man, and recommended that when a new medical center is built, it include a traditional Navajo round room for healing ceremonies. “I believe that for Navajo people, often having a “sing” or traditional curing ceremony has real healing value and they should not be denied that”, Arviso-Alvord says.

The doctor’s patients are often transported to Gallup from the farthest corners of the reservation, where they live their lives in traditional hogans and raise sheep. Arviso-Alvord believes she understands them because she comes from that same world. Today, she lives in a modern home on the outskirts of Gallup, at the base of a red-rock amphitheater where she hikes on the weekends with her husband, a mental health worker and student.

While many of the physicians who come to work at the medical center in Gallup do so to pay off hefty medical school loans or for an adventure, Arviso-Alvord is there to seek solutions to the myriad health and social problems facing a people whose entire culture is in jeopardy. Many of the medical problems she sees are caused by just this. For example, the most common ailment, diseased gallbladders, which she surgically removes at the extremely high rate of one or two a week at the medical center, are a direct response to what Arviso-Alvord sees as a “rapid change of a millennium-old diet, from one based on grains and carbohydrates to one rich in fatty meats and sugars”.

Arviso-Alvord has her work cut out for her. “To me surgery is the answer to a dream I had about contributing to the goodness of the world. It is often just unbelievable, like delivering a baby or saving a life, and I realize often it is also rare. Few people get to experience it, and I guess I am just one of those lucky few”.

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