Heroes in Our Midst

By Lance Chilton

On May 25, we celebrated Memorial Day and the heroes who helped us to victory over aggressors in Europe just more than 100 years ago and then again over the fascists of Europe and the Pacific in the Second World War. On that day I was in Gallup, observing and working alongside other heroes hard at work in a fight against another aggressive enemy, the coronavirus.

As you may know, the coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2) has hit the Navajo people in New Mexico’s northwest corner especially hard – indeed harder than any country on earth. Looked at as the number of cases and the number of deaths per 100,000, the Navajo Nation (part in Arizona, part in New Mexico, and a little part in Utah) has a case rate 6 times as great as the US as a whole. The death rate is 3.3 times our country’s rate.

Fighting the pandemic in this corner of New Mexico is a team effort: the hard-working doctors, nurses and other care providers at Gallup Indian Medical Center and at Rehoboth McKinley County Hospital have received help from Doctors without Borders, from the University of California/San Francisco, and increasingly, from New Mexico’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC).

The MRC is staffing the Gallup Alternative Care Facility (GACF), a conversion of the Hiroshi Miyamura (Gallup) High School gym into a temporary hospital. When hospitalized COVID-19 patients get better, they can be transferred to the GACF, usually for a few days until they can be sent home. Uniformly, they get careful, compassionate care from the nurses, techs, physician assistants and physicians who work there. Their rooms are spartan cubicles, but they are watched closely, they aren’t infecting those who they would go home to, and oxygen tanks are safe in comparison to how they would be in houses or hogans heated by wood stoves.

The heroes in this “war” are many – the people masking and self-isolating, the clerks in the few stores that are open, the workers in restaurants providing takeout meals, the care providers – those from Gallup, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and all over the world who contribute or come to help the beleaguered local providers.

I’d mention three more. The US Army Corps of Engineers over a three-week period took a high school gym, basketball courts and all, wired it, installed oxygen pipes and the machinery to create negative pressure that would reduce the risk of cross-contamination, and built those little cubicles where up to 60 patients can be cared for. The other two are the principles in the Medical Reserve Corps who keep it all going: Bobbie Mackenzie, who works tirelessly behind the lines, under the New Mexico Department of Health in Santa Fe, to keep MRC volunteers coming to this beautiful but now suffering and shuttered area, and Luke Esquibel, a UNM employee who leads an Albuquerque effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the people experiencing homelessness in our city. Luke is on the front lines, spending long days running the medical effort at the hotel where those in isolation with COVID-19 or in quarantine after an exposure to it.

People like Luke and Bobbie and all those others are heroes alongside Hiroshi Miyamura and other military men who defended our country. They give me hope that our country will conquer this virus as well as this politically dangerous time in our country’s history.