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Advocating for Patients in the Navajo Nation

Megan Ross

2010 BS in Nursing

Hometown: Chinle, Arizona

Megan Ross is enrolled as a nursing student in the American Indian Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program at Northern Arizona University, the first of its kind in the nation. With her degree, she plans to return to work on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona. With a high nursing turnover rate at the hospital there, Megan's goal as a health care professional is to remain in the community and stay a "familiar face" for the residents.

Northern Arizona University's American Indian Bachelor of Science in Nursing is the first bachelor of science degree program in the country to offer components within an American Indian Nation. Megan Ross is one of the few non-Native Americans enrolled in the program; however, as an experienced health care professional who has already logged significant time living among members of the Navajo Nation, she is committed to making a difference among a Native American population.

Megan discovered her passion for Native American health care after relocating to Arizona from Canada. As part of her effort to complete the prerequisites for the nursing program, she attended Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, on the 26,000 square-mile Navajo Nation. As part of her work at Diné College, she eventually moved to the reservation, and lived in a hogan with no running water at the end of a 10 mile dirt road. Now, just a semester away from graduating, Megan completes her NAU coursework and fulfills clinic hours at a local clinic in Chinle, Arizona.

The racial makeup of Chinle is 92 percent Native American. Just 210 miles away from Flagstaff, this area of the state presents unique challenges to health care practitioners. To live and work on the reservation, Megan says, requires a subtle understanding of tradition. "You can't watch a documentary about it and really understand the complexities of this culture. Most of the Navajo I know live in two worlds. They live in the Navajo culture and they live in the white world. And there is some intersection and sometimes, there is not."

Through her clinical experiences while a student, Megan is learning to bridge these two distinct worlds and offer an effective and respectful approach to patients.

When she completes her degree in Spring 2010, Megan plans to return home to Chinle, to use her education to serve the constituents of the Navajo Nation. "I like the land, I like the people, and I think there is a real need for nurses who live in the community and who are committed to the community. Chinle gets a lot of traveling nurses who come and go, so there is no continuity for the people. Every time they go in to the clinic, there is a new face and it is a face that may only stay there for three months. If you are only there for three months you really have no sense of the culture and the way people live, and the way they think."

She is receptive to the cultural complexities of her Navajo patients who come to the clinic for care. One of the skills she feels is most valuable in treating Native American patients is subtlety and sensitivity to their cultural "reserve."

She says, it is better to approach patients quietly. "You don't jump in there and start touching them and start asking a million personal questions. You give them space. You help them to get used to you. And then you give them an opening and wait until they want to talk to you. I am really big on that. I really work at not being pushy and letting them decide what they need from me."

Originally from Canada, Megan says that there are many similarities between treating a Native American population and serving, in her previous role, as a midwife in Canada. Her interest in midwifery helped to propel her to a nursing career. "While a midwife, I helped to empower women and to listen and provide choices. This is very similar to the way I see nursing on the reservation. I provide choices, empower and listen."

Ultimately, Megan is determined to serve the population and serve them well. She says, "I asked my Navajo friends, 'what kind of nurse do you need?' They answer, 'We need one who stays.' I want to be the nurse who stays, who is part of the community, committed to the community, who is there full time. I have a life out there. I travel to Flagstaff for classes and then I come back home."

Like her Native American patients, Megan lives in two worlds. In bridging the gap between them, she draws from a philosophy of care and community, that she hopes, "will stick around."