Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord says lack of physical activity is a major contributor to the nation's health woes. (John G. Fox)

First Board-Certified Navajo Female Surgeon Nominated for U.S. Surgeon General

Tanya Lee
7/26/13

Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord has put a lot of thought into how to improve health care for American Indians and in the process has come up with concepts that could make the nation's health care system better for everyone. Arviso Alvord, the first board-certified Navajo woman surgeon, has been nominated to serve as U.S. Surgeon General by the by the National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians.

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Working at the Indian Health Service hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, Arviso Alvord says she saw how uncomfortable Navajo patients were in dealing with white doctors and Western medical facilities. "They were two completely different cultures," she says, so she started integrating traditional Navajo and Western principles of healing. "I listened patiently as people spoke, rather than trying to extract information from them. I tried to make sure I understood what they wanted. Some people wanted to take sacred objects into surgery with them, so we were flexible. We were very respectful of their ways of understanding."

She recognized the ceremonies that are part of Navajo healing help the mind to be balanced. "If the mind is unhappy, the body starts not working well, leading to migraines" and other signs of ill health. "Ceremonies help the body to function well. A medicine man told me that the mind is the most important energy we have for healing.

Arviso Alvord is also very aware of the physical environment in which medical services are offered, believing that hospitals should be peaceful places that welcome friends and family, serve good food and exhibit good art. "We need to create a holistic approach to healing in a physically beautiful setting."

This nation's health has suffered, she says, because of changing lifestyles. "A lot of today's problems are about less physical activity. Activity diminishes obesity, which decreases diabetes and heart disease, as well as helping to prevent osteoporosis. We are designed to live in a certain way; need to reclaim that." Environmental health—air and water quality—and the quality of the food we eat are also critical. "Our diets are off-balance with preservatives, corn syrups, trans fats; we need to focus on eating better, whole foods." Depression and suicide are directly related to education and economic opportunity, she says. "Improving education and the economy will raise the standard of health."

Arviso Alvord graduated from Crown Point High School and earned her B.A. at Dartmouth in 1979. She worked as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab, where people encouraged her to go to medical school. Not having done well in her pre-med courses at Dartmouth, she was hesitant, but she went back and retook the courses at the University of New Mexico and did fine. She earned her M.D. at the Stanford University School of Medicine in 1985 and did a six-year residency at Stanford University Hospital. She was certified in surgery in 1994.

After working at the Indian Health Service medical center in Gallup, New Mexico, Arviso Alvord was recruited to join the faculty at Dartmouth where she served for 12 years. She helped start a new medical school at Central Michigan University and was then recruited by the University of Arizona College of Medicine to serve as associate dean for student affairs and admissions, where she has been since September. Her autobiography, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, was published in 1999.

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