Books by Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt

Released: June 8, 1999

Attempts to merge holistic healing and modern high-tech medicine are not new, but the perspective of a Navajo woman surgeon makes this very personal account unique. The title objects, a surgeon's tool and a Navajo fetish, symbolize the two worlds that Alvord inhabits and whose values she seeks to unite. Now an associate dean at Dartmouth College, she writes discerningly of growing up poor on a New Mexico reservation and of learning about her people's ways from her shinaalii, or Navajo grandmother. The culture shock she experiences as a Dartmouth undergraduate and the conflict between her Navajo upbringing and the demands of Stanford medical school (Navajos traditionally avoid touching and eye contact, and touching a dead body is strictly taboo) are made painfully clear. By the time she returns to New Mexico as a surgeon at Gallup Indian Medical Center, Alvord has learned to be white. However, her experiences treating Indian patients there and her awareness of the shortcomings of impersonal, high-tech specialty medicine soon draw her to Navajo ways of healing. She attends traditional healing ceremonies, finds a comforting way to talk to patients, and works to create an atmosphere of harmony in her operating room. She explains the Navajo philosophy of illness as a lack of balance or harmony in any part of life—one's mind, body, spirit, family, friends, community, or the environment—and the role of a native healer, or hataalii, in restoring that balance. Tony Hillerman fans will find much that is familiar here. Alvord's own visit to a hataalii late in her troubled first pregnancy provides one of the book's most memorable scenes. At her story's end, she leaves New Mexico for New Hampshire, eager to share with Dartmouth medical students a truly holistic approach to healing and wellness based on the ancient principles of her native people. A voice from another quarter speaks knowingly of modern medicine's discontent with itself. Read full book review >