In our What It’s Like series, we speak with people from a wide range of backgrounds about how their life have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this installment, we speak with family physician Michelle Tom, D.O., of the Winslow Indian Health Care Center, in Winslow, Arizona. The facility sits on the southern border of the Navajo Nation, which sprawls across more than 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. With a population of some 170,000 people, in May 2020, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York and New Jersey in COVID-19 cases per capita. At press time, 7,840 people have tested positive for COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation, and there have been 378 confirmed deaths.
Dr. Tom is Diné (the name Navajo people widely prefer to call themselves). She grew up in Chimney Butte, Arizona, and attended Dilcon Community School, a boarding school for Native Americans, then Winslow High School. She went on to play basketball and netted a degree in microbiology at Arizona State University. After that, Dr. Tom earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Arizona and completed a post-bachelor’s fellowship at the University of New Mexico before finishing her medical degree at Nova Southeastern University. When she’d completed her residency on the East Coast, Dr. Tom returned to practice medicine on the Navajo Nation in 2018.
“We’re a very matriarchal society,” Dr. Tom tells SELF. “It always comes back to family and community. Strong clanship binds us together. And the land is where we were created. It’s very spiritual for me. Medicine can be very patriarchal…. It’s not a partnership. I didn’t grow up with another nurse or doctor who looked like me or who spoke Navajo. I wanted to change that.” Here Dr. Tom tells us what a fairly typical day in her life looks like right now—if there is such a thing during this pandemic.
I had to move out of my family home at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Like many Diné, I lived in a multigenerational home. My parents, brother, and nieces live there. My work makes me high-risk for others to be around, so I moved in with a friend and colleague in Flagstaff in March. My family home was 25 minutes away from work. Now I have to drive an hour each way.
Before I leave for work, I pack my COVID-19 bag. It has a reusable face shield and goggles, two sets of full-body Tyvek suits, caps, my own extra N95s, surgical masks, and shoe covers. I always pack an extra pair of clothes so I can shower and change before I leave the hospital.
At the hospital we do patient exchange to get the latest information about our patients. I see the non-COVID-19 patients in the morning so I don’t risk spreading it to those who are not infected. Of course, if someone’s acute, you go there right away, COVID or not.
At lunchtime I try to eat quickly. My roommate and I cook for each other and try to take care of each other. We do a lot of veggies, salads, and fruits. If we’re too busy, sometimes we just throw back a protein shake or beef jerky between patients. Sometimes I don’t eat all day.
Then I get dressed for COVID-19 patients. It takes a while. I feel quicker now that it’s a routine, but I’m constantly asking, “Did I touch my mask? Is my face showing? Is my hair out? Did I double-glove?” You have to take care of yourself.
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