Leaving it up to the universe

Surgeon General nominee says she'll 'stay chill'

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 25, 2013

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Dr Alvord

D r. Lori Alvord didn't plan on becoming a surgeon. She also didn't plan on becoming an academic dean for the University of Arizona College of Medicine. And she definitely didn't plan on being endorsed as a candidate for United States Surgeon General.

In fact, she was "very surprised" when she heard the news.

The way she puts it, her life and milestones have always been in the hands of the universe, the natural world.

"The universe has been making decisions for me for the longest time," she said. "It just keeps going on and on."

The positive energy of the universe blessed Alvord last week on July 17, when the National Indian Health Board and National Congress of American Indians endorsed her as a candidate for U.S. Surgeon General.

Alvord is one of four candidates to be endorsed by the two biggest Native American and Alaska Native lobbying and think tanks in Washington D.C.

The other three candidates endorsed by the not-for-profit organizations include Donald Warne (Oglala Lakota), Charles Grim (Cherokee) and Rear Admiral Craig Vanderwagon.

Last week, both organizations released joint statements about their nominees.

"Serving as surgeon general of the United States should be an individual with the capacity to speak and act with authority, care and compassion on behalf of the health of all Americans regarding the health of all of our people," the joint release stated. "The position requires an individual with a long-term vision for a healthy America. The next surgeon general should be selected from among the finest physicians, medical academicians and health leaders in the country, including Indian Country."

According to the website for the U.S. Surgeon General, the surgeon general is appointed for a four-year term by the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate.

Regina M. Benjamin is the 18th Surgeon General of the United States and was appointed in October 2009.

When Alvord learned about her nomination, she told the Navajo Times in a telephone interview from her Tucson office Tuesday, "I was like, 'Really? What?' I wasn't expecting it. I was very surprised. I am really honored."

Alvord said the organizations had asked for a copy of her Certificate of Indian Blood, but didn't tell her what it was for. She has been under the radar the last 10 years, she said.

Star-struck is probably the best emotion to describe Alvord's reaction to the news.

"When you grow up in Crownpoint, you just really don't think of those things happening," she said chuckling. "The whole thing of being a physician or surgeon is almost surreal at times coming from that kind of background. It's very humbling."

Her ancestral Navajo roots also reach into the Breadsprings, Whitehorse Lake and Cuba, N.M. areas.

Growing up as a child, one of her earliest role models was her grandmother, who was a teacher and later a school principal at Whitehorse Lake Community School.

It was only fitting, she said, to become a teacher. It's what she wanted to be.

It was in high school that her aptitude for mathematics and science exposed her to possible career options in the health profession.

Following her graduation from Crownpoint High, Alvord decided on pharmacy as her intended major at Dartmouth College. But she struggled with the sciences there and eventually majored in the social science field of psychology.

"I wasn't prepared to compete coming out of Crownpoint High School," she said of mastering the sciences. "I backed off and was really scared of it."

After her undergraduate career at Dartmouth, Alvord was a post-baccalaureate scholar in the University of New Mexico's psychology and neuroscience departments.

Up to that point, Alvord hadn't considered medicine as a career. It wasn't until the scientists she was working with at UNM encouraged her to take prerequisite science courses for medical school that she thought it was possible to achieve.

She mostly received A's and B's in the prerequisites, or as she says with typical modesty, "I did okay, gradewise. Applied to med school and got in."

Alvord was accepted into the Stanford University School of Medicine, where she also completed her residency in general surgery.

Growing up on the reservation, Alvord was already used to working with her hands. A close Lakota friend from grade school had also taught her how to do beadwork, and she received "unanticipated training" in classical piano from her seventh-grade English teacher. A Mormon teacher's wife also taught her how to use her hands.

"I just got into a habit of doing stuff with my hands," she said. "That's part of a reason why I went into surgery."

Once in medical school, she began shadowing Dr. Ronald Lujan, one of the first Native surgeons. Lujan, a retired surgeon, provided health care services to patients at the Acoma, Cañoncito, and Laguna Indian Hospital, where Alvord shadowed him.

"When I started working with him, it just felt really natural," she added. "I really loved fixing people and helping them get better fast."

To this day, the surgeon credits Lujan with preparing her for a residency at Stanford.

"He actually made sure I knew all the major operations, and made sure I knew all these questions," she said.

Once she completed her residency at Stanford, Alvord worked for six years at Gallup Indian Medical Center and then went into academic surgery back at Dartmouth.

Before taking her current position as associate dean for student affairs and admission at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Alvord helped establish a medical program in Michigan and somehow found time to write a best-selling book titled "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear," a memoir detailing her journey of becoming a surgeon.

Her memoir, co-written by Elizabeth Cohen, is used in some medical schools to help students to learn about "culturally competency care and the healing properties of Native ceremonies."

"Arizona really pushed hard to get me here," she said. "I decided this was a good fit for me. I wanted to be closer to home."

Alvord's 10-minute version of her life that she told the Navajo Times is "really unexpected. My whole life has been unexpected," she said.

Now that's she's been nominated for the U.S. Surgeon General post, she's the talk of the U of A campus.

"I was mostly working in the background," Alvord said, noting that she likes it that way. "Now, I'm splashed in the front page in the College of Medicine."

Even though she doesn't know who else is part of the larger pool for the surgeon general, besides the other three Native American nominees, Alvord is going "stay pretty chill about it" and, as she has so many times, leave up to the universe.

"I don't want to get mentally involved with it," she said. "It may just go away. It might not because we do have some Navajo people in the White House."

Originally from Crownpoint, N.M., Alvord is of the Tsi'najinii (Ponderosa Pine) and 'Ashii'hi' Diné'e (Salt People) clans.

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at abitsoi@navajotimes.com.