Dr. Sophia Calderon Shares her Perspective of the Pandemic in the Navajo Nation

This past Tuesday, the ALANA Cultural Center welcomed Dr. Sophia Calderon, a family practitioner serving the Navajo Nation in Arizona, in a discussion concerning the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Native American community. 

Calderon began the discussion by providing some background on the Navajo Nation, an indigenous tribe with a sovereign government that spans over the states of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. For reference, the Nation’s land is larger than the state of West Virginia.

Calderon works as a family care physician as well as an HIV/AIDS specialist for the Navajo Nation. She spoke to the special experience of having been born in the same hospital in which she now works. Though Calderon did move away from Arizona to attend school and earn her medical degree, she ultimately returned to reconnect and give back to her community.

“It is amazing to have my old teachers and bus drivers now be patients and for old doctors to now be colleagues,” she said. 

In moving back to Arizona and to the Navajo Nation, Calderon has been able to connect more fully with the Navajo language as well. Growing up in Arizona, Calderon was fluent in the Navajo language, though she lost much of her language skills while she was away attending college and medical school. Since returning, she has been practicing speaking Navajo with her patients, providing her the opportunity to improve her language skills and connect with patients who do not speak English. Calderon admitted that she still has to use a translator from time to time to clarify medical jargon, but it makes the experience better when she is able to communicate herself. 

Being a member of the Navajo Nation also allows for Calderon to assess surrounding environmental factors that may contribute to a patient’s health.

First-year Clay VanOstrand was especially struck by Calderon’s anecdotes surrounding the Nation.

“I was really interested in what Dr. Calderon said about the Navajo Reservation being about the size of West Virginia, yet only having a total of 13 grocery stores,” he said. “This relates not only to why it has been more difficult for the native people living there to get food during the global pandemic, but also during normal times when it is difficult for diabetics to access healthy foods to keep their disease in check.” 

When asked about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation — specifically regarding the lack of trust surrounding minorities experience of healthcare — Calderon said there is still a present, underlying feeling of mistrust. She pointed specifically to the testing of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine that took place on Navajo patients. The test was not being administered by any of the local doctors, but was instead conducted by an outside group that came and established their program. The Navajo Nation was obviously wary of the test, not only because it was in the early stages of trials without much knowledge of its efficacy, but also due to the history of experimentation on native populations.

Looking back to the beginning of COVID-19, the pandemic hit the Navajo Nation much like the it did rest of the U.S. as it spread quickly and resulted in a shut down of the hospitals. Calderon was actively working at the time and outlined their procedures, which involved closing the hospital’s regular routine care and converting it to a COVID-19 response site, and recollected the lack of tests and rigid testing protocols. These restrictions ultimately led to feelings of mistrust from patients, as so many were being turned away untested. 

“The hospital realized we had to shift some of our focus to educating the community on how COVID-19 works and clearing up the uncertainty,” Calderon explained.

One unique aspect the doctors treating the Navajo Nation had to work with was the presence of traditional medicine and medicine men. Calderon explained that much of traditional medicine relies on ceremonies and rituals that encourage the gathering of lots of people and the sharing of accessories such as communal cups. During the pandemic and even now, the doctors and the medicine men are working together to create guidelines on what ceremonies can be held and which ones can be effectively done at home as well. Throughout the pandemic, medicine men have been turning down requests for ceremonies in order to adhere to health safety regulations. 

The ability of the Navajo medicine men and modern doctors to work together to best face and combat this pandemic is remarkable and a model of how the nation could approach the epidemic on a larger scale. The Navajo Nation is not being forced to give up their traditions and rituals, but they understand that flexibility is required in order to maintain the safety of the community as a whole.