Administrators at the Tsehootsooi Medical Center say news of a bed bug “infestation” was a false alarm.

Navajo Nation Hospital’s Bed Bug Scare Was False Alarm

Anne Minard

A feared bed bug infestation at a Navajo Nation hospital brought the facility under attack earlier this month by people who don’t trust its new management—but hospital administrators now say the “infestation” was a false alarm.

Still, the close call has underscored the need for renewed efforts at the hospital to proactively improve the health of the communities it serves.

The Tsehootsooi Medical Center in Ft. Defiance, near the Arizona-New Mexico border, shut down some of its rooms for 10 days this month to fumigate for what staff members thought were bed bugs. Patients from two units—intensive care and the multi-service unit—were relocated within the hospital or sent to other facilities during the treatment.

But by now the exterminators have come and gone, and the prognosis has changed.

“There were never any bed bugs,” said Ira Vandever, the hospital’s marketing director. “They are bugs coming from a swallows nest under the rafters next to the units that are closed. These are federally protected birds and now we will have to follow a whole set of new regulations to remove their nests from the crevices of the building.”

Critics blasted the hospital when news about the bed bugs first surfaced, saying the hospital’s care has suffered since Tsehootsooi transitioned from Indian Health Services management to local control. At the time, Vandever thought the bed bugs probably got started before the switch—and true to Navajo tradition, the pests could inspire positive changes ahead.

He said bed bugs inspired change once before, around the 1950s. At that time, people were building their outhouses too close to their homes. Annie Wauneka, whom Vandever calls the Florence Nightingale of the Navajo Nation, jumpstarted a public health campaign to move outhouses farther away. That was a time when health workers took an active role in the health of their communities, he said.

But in the intervening years, “I think we moved away from it and moved into this brick-and-mortar system. And now, there are problems with drinking water, open mines, trash disposal. We have a lot of work to do. It’s kind of like a wake-up call.”

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Tsehootsooi is among four hospitals on the Navajo Nation that have transitioned from management by Indian Health Service to local control under Public Law 638. The 1975 law allows tribes or their corporations to contract directly with the federal government to run health facilities, eliminating the IHS as a go-between.

“This localizes the health care systems and puts them back in the hands of communities,” Vandever said. “If you’re from the community, you’re more likely to get people who care about your well-being.”

And although fears about bed bugs might have added fuel to the fire, the hospital has already launched an ambitious path to return to greater involvement with the 16 Navajo Nation chapters it serves.

“We can’t just wait for people to come to us sick,” Vandever said. “We have to get out there and be proactive.”

Vandever and his colleagues at Tsehootsooi have recently landed a $3 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they’re using the money to forge new partnerships with the Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Environmental Health. Together, the agencies are tackling a broad base of community health issues ranging from the conventional, such as vaccinations, to issues not always considered part of the mix: drinking water, open uranium mines, proper waste disposal and food handling. Much of the work centers on outreach, including PSAs and videos that the hospital has posted on YouTube and Facebook.

“It kind of makes sense to go and attack the root cause of things,” Vandever said. “I guess the analogy is stop putting band aids on these gaping wounds. Things like bed bugs are just a small part of it… but they were probably a nudge to speed these efforts up.”

Vandever said the hospital’s future goals include a stronger infusion of traditional medicine, programs to address mental health and substance abuse, and even community gardens, to foster healthier lifestyles.

“Sometimes it’s simple to say you have ADD,” he said. “But you’re playing video games all day and drinking energy drinks. We want to say ‘here’s some dirt, and here’s a shovel, and let’s see if you still have ADD after you do this for a while.’ It’s getting to the point where that is best practice. That is evidence-based. It’s healing people. I think a completely holistic approach to healing is what the big initiative is.”

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