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    Traveling spiritual healers

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    Healthcare travelers are privy to scores of hospital warning signs in careers marked by new places, but few are as singular as the one John Rigby, RN, noticed recently that was posted on the closed door of a patient's room in Tuba City, Ariz. "It's the first place that I've been where they have a sign that says, 'DO NOT ENTER: CEREMONY IN PROGRESS.'"


    Photo: Getty Images/Aurora/Peter McBride
    The note, while simple, reflects how the beliefs of the Navajo Nation permeate the environment of the clinics and hospital that make up the U.S. Indian Health Service system. And, it's one of the aspects of tribal culture that Rigby and his travel partner and fiancée, Christine Ott, RN, have come to appreciate and respect while living among their patients.

    Assignments with the IHS hold the promise of exploring America's most spectacular and pristine terrain, the satisfaction of treating a population in need, and fermenting a new kinship with the land's first stewards. In fact, Rigby, Ott and other healthcare travelers have learned that assisting Native American patients can invigorate their own spirit.

    A commitment to improving health

    A branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the IHS enacts the federal government's mandate "to raise the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level," while respecting their traditions and the sovereign rights of the nations to which they belong. The agency provides care for nearly 2 million of the nation's 3.4 million Native Americans, who represent 565 federally recognized tribes. The IHS operates 28 hospitals, 63 health centers, and 31 health stations across 36 states. All members of these tribes and their descendants are eligible to receive care in IHS facilities.

    IHS personnel face multiple challenges in treating this historically neglected and mistreated population. Native Americans are chronically poorer and less healthy than Americans from other ethnic groups, enduring shorter life spans and far higher rates of diabetes, alcoholism, and premature death. The remote locations of its clinics, far from metropolitan areas and often deep inside sparsely populated reservations, make recruitment and retention of permanent medical staff difficult. In 2008, the IHS reported a 19-percent nurse vacancy rate across its healthcare facilities.

    It's this shortage that led Boca Raton, Fla.-based RN Network to propose an assignment on the Navajo reservation to new travelers Ott and Rigby. Ott had recently obtained her RN license so the couple could practice medicine while touring America, for which the couple had purchased an RV to travel. The idea of wintering in Arizona instead of Wisconsin sounded good to them, as did the chance to experience the history and culture of the area and its people.

    The two med/surgery nurses arrived in Tuba City — home to 8,200 people — in August 2010. The Navajo name for Tuba City, Tó Naneesdizí, translates as "tangled waters" which probably refers to the many springs below the surface of the ground. It's the biggest community in the Navajo Nation, which in turn, is America's largest reservation. The site is about the size of West Virginia, and covers parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.

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    James M. Fraleigh
    James M. Fraleigh is a freelance writer based in Westwood, New Jersey.