This LA-Based Physician Assistant Left Her Job to Go Help the Navajo Nation During COVID-19

Katherine GeeBah Footracer, who is Navajo, felt a calling to help her community.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire population, some communities have seen greater difficulties than others, especially Black and Indigenous Americans—which also means they need the most help.

That's why Katherine GeeBah Footracer, an NCCPA-certified physician assistant in Los Angeles, who is also Navajo, chose to use her expertise to help her own community. "I don't have a strong connection to Navajo culture, [but] I started reading more about the Navajo reservation and how the COVID pandemic was devastating it and I felt called to help," she says. "I knew I had to do something."

Focusing Her Help Where It Was Needed

Footracer emailed the Indian Health Service her resume and asked how she could volunteer—then she packed a car and headed to Kayenta, part of the Navajo Nation, in Arizona. Before she left in March, Footracer, who has been a physician assistant for 12 years, had very few patients with COVID-19 in LA. But "on the reservation, every patient I saw had friends or family with COVID-19, and most of my patients knew somebody who had died from it also," she says. Footracer estimates that about 90% of the patients she saw during her time on the reservation tested positive for COVID-19.

Those patients Footracer saw in Kayenta were of all ages. "Anywhere from eight-year-olds up to 80-year-olds," she says. "Sometimes we'd have five people from a family come in and four would test positive, [and] one would test negative." That would leave Footracer and her colleagues in a situation where they had to arrange care for the healthy family member to be protected from the virus.

The COVID-19 situation in Kayenta was much different than what Footracer experienced in LA. "The Navajo reservation and LA are such worlds apart, both distance-wise and culture-wise," she says—and that distance makes it especially hard for those on the reservation to get health care. "I would have patients who would be driving an hour to get to us because we're the nearest location, but a specialist might be two or three hours away, which is a huge barrier to care if you can't get there easily.

Healthcare Problems on the Navajo Reservation

Kayenta's large population of those with underlying health conditions, like diabetes and blood pressure, also worsened COVID-19's impact. "When people get sick with COVID, they get sicker than they do in Los Angeles, so the death rates were much higher," she says. The lack of running water and electricity caused issues as well. "About a third of households lack either running water or electricity," she says. "And if we're telling people to wash their hands for 20 seconds multiple times a day, for somebody who doesn't have running water, that's really impossible."

Despite those circumstances, Footracer says those on the Navajo reservation actually seemed to take the health risks of COVID-19 more seriously. "In LA, people were taking it somewhat seriously—I'd hear about parties and gatherings still, but on the reservation, it was being taken deeply seriously and it was seen as a community effort," she says. "Everybody I saw was wearing masks, people were following very restrictive curfews, and there was a real focus on the community's need to protect the elders and other vulnerable people in the community."

From her time on the Navajo reservation, Footracer wants to remind people that the COVID-19 pandemic is indeed real and that far too many people are suffering because of it. "We all need to do our part, which is physical distancing, wearing face coverings, staying home when you're sick, so we can and this thing," she says. And, because the pandemic has brought to light the extreme health disparities in the US, she hopes that when we do return to normal life again, it looks a bit different for many: "A new normal, a better normal, that's more just and equitable for all of us."

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