I am Diné from Tuba City, Arizona on the Navajo Nation. I am of the Towering House Clan and born for the Reed People. My maternal grandfather is of the Salt Clan and my paternal grandfather is of the Edgewater Clan. I grew up as the oldest of six children in a beautiful place outside of Tuba City. It is an area that doesn’t have a formal name but is referred to by its nearest geographical feature, Shadow Mountain. Growing up in a traditional Navajo (or Diné, as we prefer to be called) household, I was told to always introduce myself properly in this way. My story of how I arrived here to study medicine at the University of Rochester begins with my family and our Diné beliefs.
I grew up in a very close family in an area where everyone who lives within a five-mile radius is related to me. The land that we live on is the same land on which my mom, my grandmother, her parents and grandparents had lived and raised their livestock. Up until my parent’s generation, living a successful life didn’t depend on a formal education. Life was about raising a strong herd of sheep and cattle and living the Diné philosophy of Hozhó, which is a term that encompasses balance and beauty in all aspects of life. In Diné philosophy, an illness is more than just a physical ailment but involves a complex web of evil that is a result of an imbalance in Hozhó. Seeking treatment means going to visit a healer that can cure the illness in relation to restoring the balance back into your entire being. A healer reaches you on a spiritual level and speaks the language of the ancient people who are called upon to help you in your healing. In this way, Hozhó can be restored and you can be considered to be cured.
My family has a very long history of cancer, mainly of the colon and stomach. All of my grandfather’s siblings have passed on from cancer and many other family members have dealt with it at some point. Growing up I spent so much time in and out of hospitals showing our support and, in most cases, paying our last respects. My grandmother passed on from stomach cancer and, more recently, my grandfather passed on from leukemia after previously having cancer three different times. My uncles have all had cancer, two of whom have had it twice. Having grown up in an isolated world on the Navajo Nation, I had no idea that this number of cases in one family was not normal. After spending some part of my education off the reservation, I began to make larger comparisons and realize more and more that there was something wrong.
Spending so much time in hospitals while growing up, I had interacted with doctors almost regularly by watching them attend to my family members and getting involved by translating between English and Navajo. As I became more involved in translating and helping my family to understand certain issues, I felt that somehow the doctors needed my help. Before high school I decided that I wanted to become a doctor and made the best of my education and took advantage of other educational opportunities elsewhere. I attended a math and science summer program at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA for three consecutive summers and strengthened my background in those areas. My mother told me that if I wanted to go to college, I had to do well in school to receive scholarships because she couldn’t save anything for college as I had five younger siblings at home. I worked hard, graduated valedictorian of Tuba City High School and received more than enough scholarship money from various sources to attend Dartmouth College, where I received a B.A. in Mathematics without putting financial stress on my family.
I was very impressed with the University of Rochester’s biopsychosocial model of learning medicine and felt that it would integrate all aspects of my traditional beliefs into a great medical education. I spent the last bit of my grandmother’s life at her bedside talking with her for hours about my plans for my life, which included how I wanted to become a doctor. She expressed her concern about how the world (of the Diné) was changing into that of the “white” people and how Western medicine was taking over traditional healing and knowledge. I convinced her that I was not going to leave my Diné teachings but that I was looking for a way to integrate and balance Western medicine into our traditional sense of healing. She said that she was very proud of my courage and willingness to continue and that as long as I was in touch with the Creator by giving thanks for all that Mother Earth provides for me, I should be able to maintain Hozhó and bring whatever I needed to back home to help our people.