In her early days as a surgeon, Lori Arviso Alvord had a sinking feeling that the care she delivered was incomplete. “It left me feeling a deep unhappiness and a deep void in my life,” she told a campus audience of students, staff, and local residents in February. “I thought, there’s got to be a better way.” Alvord’s search for answers sent her back to the medicine of her ancestors, the Navajo.
The author of The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing, Alvord is the daughter of a Navajo father and a Caucasian mother. Raised on a reservation in New Mexico, Alvord faced an uphill cultural battle when she went to medical school at Stanford: Navajo tradition, she says, forbids touching human corpses and removing organs.
Still, Alvord persevered with her studies. Ultimately she decided on a surgical career after a Native-American surgeon told her how “beautiful” it is when one Native person operates on another. When Alvord started her career on a reservation, she began to sense inadequacies in the impersonal, Western medicine she had learned at Stanford. Slowly she learned to combine her medical-school knowledge with the ancient spiritual Navajo healing traditions.
Alvord, who is now an associate dean at Dartmouth Medical School, enhances her surgical practice, for example, with the Navajo philosophy of harmony between the body, mind, and spirit. And being a Navajo, she added, has helped her see the value of making personal connections with patients, even though medical school trained her to keep a professional distance. Alvord is also a firm believer in the Navajo idea that everything even hospitals should be beautiful. “Beauty may be one of our best ways of healing,” she said. Apparently Alvord has gotten her colleagues at Dartmouth to agree. There are skylights, paintings, and fountains at the university’s new hospital, she notes, as well as space for parents to sleep overnight.
“These are concepts that the universe wants to put out there. They’re coming through me, they’re not coming from me,” Alvord said. “I think the reason these ideas came from someone who’s a surgeon is because the surgical world is most in need of these ideas.”