Joining Western Medicine and Traditional Healing: Journey of the First Navajo Woman Surgeon

“The Scalpel and the Silver Bear” is a candid, thoughtful and very personal account of a pioneering young woman who shares her struggles and triumphs in a way that invites the reader into her history, home and family as well as her medical practice. I was moved and inspired by the way she perceives the privilege of her profession and the sacredness of her call. And the compelling way she conveys her tradition is imbued with honor and respect.

“Navajos believe in - ‘Walking in Beauty’ – a worldview in which everything in life is connected and influences everything else. A stone thrown into a pond can influence the life of a deer in the forest, a human voice and a spoken word can influence events around the world, and all things possess spirit and power. So Navajos make every effort to live in harmony and balance with everyone and everything else. Their belief system sees sickness as a result of things falling out of balance, of losing one’s way on the path of beauty. In this belief system, religion and medicine are one and the same.”

Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D. is the first Navajo woman surgeon, and with Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt, she has written a highly engaging, deeply moving book about her journey from the Reservation in Crownpoint, NM to the hallowed halls of Dartmouth, to Stanford Medical School, and back to her beloved Reservation to practice medicine. Here she comes to more fully recognize and value the power and efficacy of the sacred traditions of her family and her tribe. With a commitment to further study, great respect and dedication to her patients, she goes on a journey of discovery and integration in order to combine Traditional healing with Western medicine.

What Dr. Alvord comes to realize is that the ways of her people have much to offer a modern medical system that is overburdened with bureaucracy, and places more emphasis on technology than healing. In her culture medicine is performed by a hataalii, a healer who sees a person not merely physically, but as a whole person with a body, mind and spirit; patients are members of the community and are seen as persons who need to be in harmony with family, community and the world.

The book contains stories of many patients whom Dr. Alvord sees and treats. Through these accounts she weaves the gifts, wisdom and keen insights that Traditional healing has to offer a medical system that often sees organs and diseases rather than whole persons.

Dr. Alvord explains that while surgery is focused primarily on a single organ within the body, she always tries to remain aware of the entirety of the person – body, mind and spirit, as well as the harmony of their whole being. She expresses her mindfulness, sensitivity and respect this way, “I am opening a person. I am putting my hands inside their body. I am touching places so private that this person has never even seen them themselves.” Feeling honored to have the trust of her Navajo patients, Dr. Alvord learned more of the native language than was taught to her as a child, so that she could put her patients at ease and communicate with utmost respect.

The book is well worth reading and contains a surprising number of facets. I resonate with the Navajo worldview and enjoyed the ways in which she incorporated native wisdom and described nature. It is my hope that someday there will be a sequel.

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