The Ship Rock rises from the desert like a solitary warrior. Strong. Resolute. Sacred. Towering nearly 1,583 feet above the New Mexico landscape, it’s an enduring sign of an ancient rescue and protection. In the nearby town of Shiprock, the Northern Navajo Medical Center represents a rescue from a modern enemy – COVID-19. Dr. Wendy Carle, a physician working with CHG Healthcare‘s CompHealth division, is part of that effort.
“Working at the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most challenging and rewarding times of my career,” she explains.
With a career full of expertise in clinical, classroom, and administration settings, Dr. Carle was ready for a new challenge. COVID and CompHealth presented just the opportunity.
She happened to see a former college friend talking on national television about the devastation the pandemic brought to the Navajo Nation. For Dr. Carle, the message hit home. She began looking for locum tenens, or temporary, assignments with the Indian Health Service – or IHS. She says CompHealth had the most experience working with IHS and was best situated to help her find the type of position she wanted.
Dr. Carle arrived in Shiprock last July. “My job was supposed to be doing the walk-in clinic in the internal medicine department,” she recalls. “But it changed month by month because of changing needs.”
Clinic doctors who normally specialized in internal medicine, rheumatology, or other areas dedicated themselves to providing care to patients who needed to be seen for conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. That freed other physicians to deal with the rising numbers of hospitalized COVID patients.
Dr. Carle’s initial stay was only supposed to be three months. But she was so impressed with the leadership and commitment of the medical team and the warmth and gratitude of her patients, she extended her commitment for an additional six months.
Caring for the Navajo people
“The patients are a pleasure to work with,” she says. “They’re resilient and funny and grateful.”
Dr. Carle says most of her patients over 65 spoke Navajo. Although these elders also spoke English, interpreters were on hand to help physicians connect with their patients. There were always opportunities to learn and appreciate cultural differences.
“I tried to meet patients wherever they were at,” Dr. Carle says. “If they told me they had been treated by the Medicine Man, I said I appreciated knowing that and encouraged them to share as much with me as they felt comfortable with. Some ceremonies are intended to be private. I feel like people understood I was trying to be respectful of their belief systems and how I could help.”
She says working in Shiprock for the second wave of the pandemic was a tsunami of exhaustion. Even though she calls the situation “horrific,” her respect for her fellow medical team was immense. “It was a wonderful group of doctors,” she says. “They were very well trained and dedicated and we worked together really well. They were all doing the best they could to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
A turning point in the pandemic
For Dr. Carle, the highlight of her experience was the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine in January. She says the first patient to be vaccinated at the clinic was a 90-year-old woman.
“It was fantastic!” she recalls.
Today, 97% of the Navajo population over age 75 has been vaccinated. Dr. Carle was gratified to see the numbers of COVID-19 cases drop as the number of immunizations rose.
Despite the exhaustion and heartache, Dr. Carle says her locums experience with CompHealth and IHS has been positive. In fact, she’s accepted another assignment with CompHealth at the Northern Navajo Medical Clinic for this summer.
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