On the Road with Navajo Nation Health Workers

Many Navajo live in picturesque, if isolated, homes — such as this one, owned by septuagenarian couple Nancy and Bennie.

Community Health Representatives in the Navajo Nation have been caring for their tribe since 1968. They drive long distances, often in four-wheeler pickups, to regularly check up on everyone from teens to grandparents. And they help those clients stay healthy (“clients” is the preferred term, even though the program is free and the relationships are often familial, literally and figuratively) by consulting on medications, advising on diets, and more. Under the name Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment, or COPE, Partners In Health is proud to support Community Health Representatives with consultation materials and hundreds of hours of training each year. Here’s a quick glimpse into the heart of a native health system.

(All photos by Cecille Joan Avila / Partners In Health)

The Navajo Nation covers some 27,000 square miles and straddles Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. To make their regular rounds, Community Health Representatives such as Stephanie Shorty (left) and Jonathan Abeita (right) spend hours in their trucks each day.

One of the perks of the job, most Community Health Representatives report, is getting to spend time with elders. Here, Martha Williams (right) listens to 81-year-old client Julia explain how to take the tassel of a corn stalk and tap it gently over a bowl to collect the pollen. “A ¼ cup in a leather bag is half a cornfield,” Julia says.

Here, Julia remembers her family washing themselves not with spring water but with snow. “When the trees were heavy with snow,” she recalled, “my father would shake the branches and my sister and I had our snow bath.”

While every visit by a Community Health Representative helps a client stay healthy, building personal connections and spending time together often is just as valuable. Here, Terrilyne Joe (left) takes Norman’s blood pressure. Moments earlier, 61-year-old Norman had finished telling the 26-year-old the epic story — featuring a cruel school, a hippie van, and his theory about how two people can have complementary disabilities — of how he met the love of his life and wife of 42 years.

There’s always plenty of work to do, too. Here, Stephanie Shorty (left) double-checks prescriptions for Stanley, as she does twice a month. He lives alone, and acknowledges that he doesn’t always like to take his medicine. “Coffee is my medicine,” he jokes.

Community Health Representatives often go on walks with their clients, to encourage a routine of physical activity — and take in the Nation’s beautiful, rugged scenery. Here, Stanley and Stephanie take a walk toward the mesa, from which they can see the home he was born in 60 years ago.