Top doc

Diné medical doctor hired to develop 10-year wellness plan

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 17, 2011

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Gayle Chacon

T he Navajo Nation once again has a top doctor.

Dr. Gayle Diné Chacon reported for duty as the medical adviser and chief medical officer to the Division of Health, where she will help the tribe develop long-term strategies to restore the people to good health.

She will provide guidance to President Ben Shelly as he seeks to fulfill a campaign promise to develop a 10-year wellness plan to alleviate some of the most chronic problems on the reservation, including diabetes and alcoholism, and make everyone healthier.

Hers is a position that was held before by only one person - the late Dr. Taylor McKenzie.

McKenzie, the first Navajo to earn a medical degree, was appointed the tribe's chief medical officer in 2006 and served in that capacity until his death on April 13, 2007. The position has been unfilled since then, primarily because the tribe was never able to find a Navajo physician willing to accept the job.

"I was offered the job several years ago," said Chacon, but she was then serving as director of the Center for Native American Health, an organization she helped create at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. She is currently on sabbatical from that position.

Chacon is Todich'ii'nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for Kiyaa'aanii (Towering House Clan). Her chei is Tachii'nii (Red Running into Water Clan) and her paternal grandfather's clan is Kinlichii'nii (Red House).

Born and raised in Chinle, she knew from an early age that she wanted to do something with science, inspired by a book her father, Frank Dinéyazhe, brought home when she was 5 or 6 years old.

Her father, who is now retired, worked for the BIA and one of his duties was to burn discarded equipment. But when the load contained books, she said, he couldn't bring himself to burn them so he would bring them home for his children to read.

One day he brought a book filled with fascinating pictures.

"The first picture showed a man and woman fully clothed," she said. "When you turned the page, it showed the two without clothes and the next page showed them with no skin. The following pages showed their muscles, then you would see their nerves and vessels and finally their skeletons."

The photos made her sick and she said she told her father that they were scary and she was afraid.

He explained to her that this was an anatomy book and it was used by doctors, adding, "One day, you could grow up to be a doctor."

That planted the seed, Chacon said, sparking an interest in science that continued throughout her school career and years when she aspired to be an astronomer.

Her higher education began with two years at the now defunct College of Ganado, where she learned of an U.S. Indian Health Service program that provided scholarships for Navajos attending medical school.

Chacon recalls that then-chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. and Annie Wauneka, two of the tribe's top leaders, witnessed her graduation from Ganado.

She then went to the now defunct University of Albuquerque where she graduated with honors in biology. This paved the way for her to attend the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, where she got her medical degree and then went on to train in family medicine.

Change of plans

Finally, Chacon was ready to come back to the Navajo Reservation where her cultural and language understanding would benefit her patients.

But the IHS, to whom she was indebted for financing her medical studies, had other ideas - she was assigned to the Fort Belknap IHS Hospital just south of the Canadian border.

Chacon remembers thinking that she spent 24 years of her life going to school so she could come back home to help her people and now the IHS was sending her to an Indian reservation in Montana where she didn't know the language or the customs.

She looked for another way and found one that allowed her to follow her dream - joining the UNM School of Medicine and fulfilling her obligation to IHS by working at a UNM clinic that served the far eastern chapters of the Navajo Nation.

For the next four years, Chacon drove the road to Cuba, N.M., and provide medical care to hundreds of Navajo families in Ojo Encino, Torreon and the Cuba area.

It's an area, she said, where Navajos feel cut off - disenfranchised - from the rest of the reservation.

It's a place where a doctor can treat a dog bite in the morning, another one at noon and a third one later that afternoon - all from the same perpetrator, because no one is around to pick up the dog after the first bite is reported.

It's also the type of place, she said, where everybody knows everybody and when a Navajo elder doesn't show up at the clinic to pick up his medicine, then the doctor - Chacon - gets into her official vehicle and goes out and finds him. She knew where to look.

"Everyone knew that at a certain time, he would be in his pickup on top of this high hill because that was the only place he could hear his favorite program on KTNN," she said.

Once she had completed her obligation to IHS, Chacon sought new worlds to conquer and formed the Center for Native American Health at the UNM School of Medicine. Its mission is to work with tribes, including the Navajo, to improve health conditions on Indian lands in the state.

At the same time, Chacon continued to do clinic duty at UNM Hospital and to teach as well.

Her new position with the Navajo Nation is coordinated through the UNM School of Medicine and she is again looking forward to a new challenge.

But Chacon doesn't plan to give up practicing medicine while she helps the Shelly administration and she is already in contact with the Tsehootsooi Medical Center in Fort Defiance about joining the staff while she is here.

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