ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There are miracles great and small in Dr. Erica M. Elliott’s memoir “Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert – My Life Among the Navajo People.”
Several miracles appear in the first chapter, introducing Elliott’s struggles improvising health care in a bare-bones clinic in Cuba, N.M.
The chapter centers on the clinic, her first 24 hours of her first job out of medical school in 1986. She miraculously manages to stay alert to treat patients in an overnight shift through the next day.
It was a miracle that Elliott temporarily resuscitated a Navajo medicine man who had been run over by a truck and rushed to the clinic, where X-rays revealed a crushed chest, all his ribs fractured and blood pooled in his lungs and chest cavity.
After that chapter, the memoir takes the reader back 15 years to the start of her work on the Navajo reservation. A 23-year-old college graduate, Elliott is teaching at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Chinle, Ariz.
Her fourth-graders don’t know English, and she doesn’t speak Navajo. Because of Elliott’s open mind and open heart a miracle of cross-cultural instruction ensues, paving the way for mutual acceptance and newfound bilingualism.
Through English her students learn reading, writing and arithmetic. At the same time, Elliott learns to speak Navajo and to understand Navajo culture and customs with the help of a Navajo teacher’s aide, her students and their families with whom she spends some weekends.
Elliott writes of being the beneficiary of a miracle while hiking solo in southern Utah. She nods off in a sleeping bag dreaming about the strong scent of a billy goat. The smell of musk follows her out of the dream.
“Before I could open my eyes, I heard a sniffing sound right next to me,” Elliott writes. “Without moving, I opened my eyes and – Oh my God, I am being sniffed by a mountain lion, inches from my face! … I closed my eyes, frozen in fear, waiting for his claws to dig into my skin and tear me apart. Nothing happened.”
Weeks after the encounter, the Navajo grandmother of a school colleague offered an explanation: The mountain lion was Elliott’s “spirit guide.”
It came to give her courage to face future obstacles in life. Elliott related another miracle, this one concerning a lymph node that had enlarged and hardened under her chin. An internist in a Ganado, Ariz., hospital told her it could be cancer and recommended a biopsy.
Elliott’s innate fear of hospitals propelled her to flee before having the biopsy. Instead, she tracked down two medicine men, one Hopi, one Navajo. But both said they didn’t have the expertise to help her. Then a Navajo family recommended a Road Man, a person who leads Native American Church peyote ceremonies. Elliott was invited to participate in a ceremony.
After two years in Chinle, Elliott broadened her experience in traditional Navajo ways. She spent the summer herding 597 sheep and goats for an elderly Navajo couple who lived near the foot of Shiprock.
After that summer, Elliott joined the Peace Corps teaching school in a Quechua indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Andes and wrote a bilingual book for classroom use.
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