May 4, 2009

The Scalpel and the Silver Bear by Lori Arviso Alvord and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt

BOOK #: 34
CHALLENGES: 21 Cultures Challenge, Colorful Reading Challenge, Triple 999 Challenge, In Their Shoes Challenge
RATING: 4 Stars

The Scalpel and the Silver Bear is about Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon. Dr. Alvord takes the reader on a journey between two worlds- that of Western medicine and Navajo tradition. She fights the unspoken rules in her culture that surgery is defliling the body to become a Stanford educated surgeon. She moves back home to Gallup, New Mexico to help her own people. But it is not easy. Dr. Alvord realizes there is something missing from contemporary medical care- an understanding of the patient as a whole person.

At the basis of Navajo philosophy is the concept "Walking in Beauty". It is a way of living a balanced life completely in harmony with the world. It means caring for your body, your mind, and your spirit and having respectful relationships with your family, your community, animals, the environment and the universe.

"In the Western world disease is very compartmentalized by organs or medical specialties, and in some ways this does not benefit the patient. Specialists often don't look outside their own parameters to see what else might be influencing an illness. A Navajo healer will look at the person's whole life and the lives of those around him or her. Usually, the healer has lived in the same community with the person for decades; he knows a great deal about the person and what might be happening in his or her life. The Navajo view is a macro view, whereas Western medicine often takes a micro view."

If this concept seems familiar to you, then it is because it is a holistic approach to wellness. In the 1990s, when Dr. Alvord was beginning to combine this treatment approach with western medicine, this was a new concept. Dr. Alvord gives examples from her own patients, and even a personal example, of how combining the two ways of healing is beneficial, and even necessary, to help patients everywhere.

I loved learning about the Navajo culture, a culture which Dr. Alvord herself often felt left out of. She and her sisters have a Navajo father and a white mother. Her parents encouraged them to speak English and to get an education. While Lori understands a lot of the cultural concepts, including learning as a small child not to ever touch someone who is dead, she later takes classes after beginning to work at the Gallup hospital to help her learn the Navajo language so she can communicate better with her Navajo patients. There is not a lot of trust from the Navajos towards the Western world, as many of the older people on the reservation remember the stories of their parents and grandparents' maltreatment by the Western world. There are also the cultural taboos of not touching anything dead, not discussing something bad (like cancer prevention) because then the bad thing will happen to you, not asking personal questions (which a doctor needs to do), and the belief that a person's body is so sacred and special that cutting it open and touching the inside of it is a concept almost too difficult to process.

There is also the side of Navajo culture that medicine men use that has taught Western medicine a thing or two. A disease comes through the reservation, dubbed "The Navajo plague" by the media, and no one knows just why. A medicine man says it is because the earth was not in balance. He said there are too many pinon nuts because of the rain and to "look to the mouse". Later after the CDC gets involved, they find out that the virus has come from exposure to rodent droppings. The mouse population had exploded because of the extra rain that season and there were many more pinon nuts than usual. The mice came to eat the pinon nuts. Many Navajo people live in poverty and were exposed to the mice and the droppings, and became very ill. In the weeks that followed, the media acknowledged that traditional beliefs helped solve the medical mystery. The medicine man knew that because of the excess rain, the environment was thrown off balance, and therefore was the cause of the illnesses.

This book was fascinating with its many stories of treating Navajo patients, learning about the culture, and Dr. Alvord's own struggle with mixing the western medicine in with her own cultural beliefs. I don't even know if my review does it justice. I recommend it for anyone who finds the topics of cultures, medicine, alternative healing, or Native Americans interesting. You will learn a lot.

1 comment:

  1. I love to read about strong women like Dr. Alvord. That book sounds fascinating.


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