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Travel nursing in the Navajo Nation: An unexpected blessing

Nurse and her dog on a travel nursing assignment in the Navajo Nation

When ER nurse Deb Kelly took her first travel nursing assignment, she was terrified. Tsehootooi Medical Center on the Navajo Nation reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, was 1,400 miles and a 16-hour drive from her home in Louisiana. And she was at the precipice of a brand-new chapter in her then-21-year ER nursing career.

“I couldn’t even pronounce Tsehootoi when I first accepted the assignment,” Deb says. “I’ve since learned the correct pronunciation and I’ve learned a little Navajo. Within the first couple of weeks, I was in love with the reservation.”

Service to community

ER nurse Deb Kelly
ER nurse Deb Kelly

An ordained minister and volunteer chaplain for her local police department back home, Deb threw herself into her new community and looked for opportunities to serve. She volunteered at chapter houses passing out food and necessity boxes during COVID-19 lockdowns and helped new friends ranch and plant gardens. Deb says the service connected her in a meaningful way to her new surroundings and helped forge bonds outside of work.

“My faith has really sustained me a lot,” Deb says. “When I’m not working, there are things that I can do to get my mind off of work but also help. I love helping people. And if I’m not starting an IV or starting medication, then I’m going to help pass out food and try to help somebody’s weekend be better. That kind of keeps me going.”

Among the charitable events Deb organized was a Christmas gift drive for an orphanage on the Navajo Nation Reservation. She led a fundraising effort and involved the doctors and nurses at her hospital. They raised enough to provide gifts for all 31 children, organized through the “Grandmas” and “Grandpas” — a universal term for elderly individuals in the tribe.

“When we got their wish lists, I started crying. I expected their lists to include new pillows or an Xbox or something cool. But these lists included toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, thermal underwear and cereal. Things we just take for granted that we can go to the store and buy.”

Deb and the group were able to provide everything on the children’s wish lists, as well as pajamas, toys, food staples, and firewood to the Grandmas and Grandpas.

“It was the most humbling experience,” Deb says. “Because we all came together and were able to put our means and our time together, these Grandmas, Grandpas, and children got to stay warm and fed for the holiday season. We don’t do it for accolades, and we don’t do it for pats on the back, we just do it because these people needed something and we were there to provide it. And I would hope that if my family were in the same position, someone would take us in and do the same for us.”

The pandemic’s effect on the Navajo Nation

Professionally, Deb’s work at Tsehootooi Medical Center has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the Navajo Nation and other tribal communities.

“If the Navajo Nation was its own state, it would be third in the nation in COVID deaths,” Deb says. “Often times, many generations live together and we’ve seen entire families — grandparents, parents, siblings — pass away from COVID-19. The last several months have been very difficult. There are days I’ve called my recruiter crying because no matter how hard we try to save lives, when you have four ventilators and five people need one, how do you decide who gets the ventilator?”

Deb believes COVID-19 has forever reshaped the medical field and encourages people to follow CDC and WHO guidelines.

“I personally encourage people to do what everybody’s been saying — cover your cough, don’t go anywhere if you’re sick. If you have the symptoms, try to self-quarantine, or isolate from the other family. Wash your hands, wash them often, sanitize, wear a mask. A lot of it is simple common courtesy and some of it really is life changing,” Deb says.

Travel family and furry friends

In addition to her work and volunteerism, Deb has made close friends who feel like family. And that family recently grew by four feet… or rather, paws.

ER nurse Deb Kelly and her dog Honey

“The Navajo Nation has become my second home,” Deb says. “I have met a best friend, as well as a couple and their baby who have lost both their parents to COVID, so I’ve kind of adopted them. They are like family. I have my ‘res kids’ and ‘res grandbaby’ and now, I have my ‘res dog’ – Honey.”

The reservation is home to thousands of homeless dogs, due in part to cultural beliefs and more rural-oriented attitudes toward pet ownership.

“I was working in the ER and this one little dog came up to me,” Deb says. “She was very sweet and approachable. A lot of the dogs don’t trust people, and won’t come to you. But she started sniffing my fingers and let me pet and feed her. She was still there three days later, so I said, ‘I’m taking this one home.’ Once I got her home and in the backyard, it was like she was in love.”

When Deb picked up Honey, she was just 38 pounds and malnourished. Today, she is thriving and healthy. Most especially, she’s provided Deb with welcome companionship on this assignment.

“She’s my angel. I tell people all the time, I don’t know if she rescued me or I rescued her because sometimes it can get lonesome out here,” Deb says. “You’re by yourself, you’re without your family, you’re without your friends. And I was without my dogs and so she kind of rescued me too.”

Deb plans to make Honey her travel dog and have her go on assignments from now on.

Looking ahead and sharing advice

As for those future assignments and plans, Deb plans to go back to Louisiana to be closer to family, though, “Tsehootsooi is my second home and I don’t see a time where I will never not want to go back.”

Deb would love to take a position as a flight nurse, and her recruiter is exploring options for her. She also plans to go back to school for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is interested in forensic nursing to help work with victims of domestic and sexual violence.

She offers the following advice to nurses who are considering travel assignments, or travelers who are just getting started.

“Do your research and figure out what’s important to you. What is your goal? Why do want to travel? Where do you want to travel? Research the culture where you’re going,” Deb says. “But most importantly, establish a strong relationship with your recruiter. My recruiter, Kristen, has literally been the glue that’s held me together. She’s the best cheerleader and I’ve put a lot of trust in her. There are going to be up days and down days just like there are with any other job, but your recruiter is going to be your best friend.”

Interested in travel nursing? We can help you find your next travel nursing adventure. Give us a call at 800.866.0407 or view today’s travel nursing jobs.

About the author

Allison Riley

Allison Riley is a public relations professional with more than 10 years experience in healthcare and corporate communications. She lives in New York City with her better half and two wonderful daughters. She and her girls are currently contending for world's slowest recorded stair climb to a fifth-floor apartment, and she enjoys writing so she can just finish her sentence already.


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