News & Perspectives

A Native American Approach to Healing
"Some of my patients ask if they should try a sweat lodge or tribal dance," says Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, the world's first Navajo woman surgeon and associate dean at Dartmouth Medical School. "But many of these healing rituals, so important to Native Americans, are difficult to export in a meaningful way to a foreign cultural setting." Still, she advises, whether it's lighting a candle for a loved one or attending church, ceremonies that have personal meaning can be an important aspect of the healing process.

"Walking in beauty"
Dr. Alvord tempers her advice with lessons learned during her Navajo upbringing and years of practicing medicine in her native New Mexico. She views her return to Dartmouth, a school with a long tradition of educating Native Americans and also her alma mater, as fitting.

Like most of the more than 500 tribal groups in North America, the Navajo teach the importance of "walking in beauty"--of being in harmony with your physical and natural surroundings. The medical center at Dartmouth, surrounded by trees and infused with natural light, is the first hospital Dr. Alvord has seen that embodies this notion. Overhead paging has been eliminated, for example, to minimize jarring sounds. Such details, she feels, ease stress and foster healing.

Family ties
Closeness to family and the larger community is also an essential component of Navajo healing--an approach confirmed by science. A landmark 10-year trial at Stanford University, for example, found that support groups helped women with advanced breast cancer live longer. Other studies have shown that strong social ties decrease your risk of dying twofold, about the same as having low cholesterol or not smoking.

Dartmouth is one of the first major medical centers to make it easy for families to be together. The pediatric intensive care unit, for instance, now has adjoining rooms for visitors, so loved ones no longer have to camp out in waiting rooms day and night. Other conveniences are adjacent restaurants, shops, post office, and a bank.

A personal ceremony
Finally, Dr. Alvord encourages people to take a more active role in their health care by developing rituals that give comfort and call attention to the mind-body relationship. Prepare for surgery, for example, by practicing a meditation or yoga routine or taking a daily walk in a favored outdoor setting. She notes that heart surgery patients who listen to <<>> tapes that help them visualize serene scenarios seem to heal faster, have shorter hospital stays, and need less pain medication. Diane Tusek's "Stressful Times, Nature Sounds" is among the recordings used at Dartmouth.

Dr. Alvord relates how one patient with leukemia gathered friends and family together before undergoing chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. The group sang songs, shared memories, and expressed feelings. It was a special and powerful moment, she says, one that she believes helped strengthen the patient for the challenges ahead.

For more information, contact: Dartmouth Medical Center, New Hampshire; 603-650-5000; Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., The Scalpel and the Silver Bear (Bantam, 1999).

Date Published: 04/29/2003
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