Doctors faced with unique challenges battling COVID-19 on Navajo Nation

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Posted at 7:00 PM, Aug 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-13 00:17:55-04

WINDOW ROCK, AZ — A red cloth, waving in the northern Arizona breeze -- an ancient battle symbol for a modern-day war. And in the fight against coronavirus, Dr. Naomi Young is one of the Navajo Nation's fiercest soldiers.

"Ever since I was young I always wanted to be a doctor," explains Dr. Young.

And Dr. Young knew one day, being a doctor would mean she'd come back to the same community that helped raise her -- Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation.

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Photos from small villages across the Navajo Nation in Arizona show what life is like for residents amid the fight against COVID-19.

"The advantage of coming from the reservation and returning to the reservation I think is a big one, because I’m familiar with the socioeconomic disparities that are within the community."

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Those challenges include limited access to running water, electricity, and healthy food. The Navajo Nation has only about a dozen grocery stores to serve an area the size of West Virginia.

"Some communities have to drive even 30, 40, or 50 miles just for a grocery store."

And another factor, once seen as an advantage, now credited with claiming more lives -- extended family, living together in one house.

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Photos from small villages across the Navajo Nation in Arizona show what life is like for residents amid the fight against COVID-19.

"Part of Navajo culture and the strength of our culture is the family unit. We find that in non-COVID time, this was our strength, but it's actually one of our weaknesses we're starting to see."

All of those factors, driving up coronavirus case numbers. Dr. Young has treated dozens of patients since the pandemic began. The marks on her face are still visible from the hours and hours of mask wearing, but she says it's no match for the human toll.

"Losing a patient to COVID is one of the hardest things we can take as a physician, and it's even harder without the family there because, in a way, you have to step up as the local family member. Especially being from the area and knowing the family. It's that much more pressure that’s kind of put on us."

Something else that adds to the pressure -- cases spiking across the rest of Arizona.

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Dr. Loretta Christensen is the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Indian Health Services Navajo office. Hospitals across Arizona have taken Navajo patients, but when cases spike in the Valley, the impact is more severe than you may have imagined.

"If Phoenix and Albuquerque have no bed capacity, we can’t send patients out," explains Dr. Christensen. "We have stepped it up. We’ve trained our clinicians, we’ve gotten ventilators, we have plans to expand our ICUs internally to three times their normal size and we are prepared to do that."

Dr. Young says her hospital is just as busy as ever. Although cases across the Navajo Nation have started to decline overall, here in Fort Defiance, Dr. Young says they're seeing a steady rise in her part of the reservation. It's proof that this pandemic isn't letting up any time soon.

PHOTOS: COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation

"We all know it's not over. We all know this is an endurance game that we’re playing."

This is the third in a week-long series of special reports from the Navajo Nation. Join us on ABC15 Mornings all week to see our complete coverage.