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Greyshirts volunteers serve on frontlines during pandemic

SALT LAKE CITY

The Team Rubicon Greyshirts, like Alicia Shields, love serving the Diné people with nursing care and have been volunteering on the frontlines since the COVID-19 pandemic began its surge across the Navajo Nation.

“I gotta go, I gotta go. Period,” Shields, an emergency care nurse, remembers saying when the Navajo Nation reported its first COVID-19 case in the Kayenta Service Unit last spring. COVID-19 has since killed over 1,100 people of all ages.

Courtesy photo | Team Rubicon
Team Rubicon Greyshirts Shelby Crandall and Maggie Desmond deployed to Gallup to assist as EMTs after the rise in COVID-19 cases.

In the Kayenta Health Center emergency room, Shields treated thousands of COVID-19 positive patients and saw as many as eight patients per shift transported to larger hospitals outside Dinétah. In the first surge, Shields did her best to comfort Diné.

Some of those crushing moments, she recalls, saw her standing in PPE and scrubs watching loved ones say goodbye behind glass doors.

Some family units had 10 to 15 members infected with COVID-19. One by one Diné people came for COVID-19 related issues with many thinking it was a death sentence because of the number of fatalities from the virus, Shields said. “We were there during the tough times,” she said. “We had patients come non-stop.”

In the first surge, Team Rubicon sent 128 Greyshirts, including 47 medically trained volunteers like Shields, to the Navajo Nation between April and June. In total, Greyshirts serving the Navajo Nation clocked in over 15,000 hours in more than 90 days and served approximately 3,206 patients. Team Rubicon is a nonprofit made-up of 120,000 Greyshirt volunteers – military veterans, first responders and civilians who deploy to communities hit by natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had over 29,200 cases of COVID-19, with over 1,100 deaths. More than 15,800 of the 29,200 have since recovered from the pathogen. Because COVID-19 is highly transmissible and has shown high fatality rates among the Navajo Nation’s 160,000 citizens, the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, Nez-Lizer administration and Navajo Department of Health asked Team Rubicon for relief to help mitigate the virus’s spread.

Dr. Lorretta Christensen, chief medical officer for Navajo Area IHS, confirmed in an interview with the Navajo Times that her agency had asked volunteer organizations like Team Rubicon for help. Team Rubicon, she said, was the first volunteer organization deployed to the Navajo Nation, specifically to the outbreak zone in the Kayenta Service Unit. “They’re definitely filling a crucial need,” Christensen said. “We are so busy at every health facility with this second wave. We are so happy they came back again. They’re very knowledgeable at public health emergencies, like logistics and testing operations.”

While the pandemic is far from over, Christensen added that volunteer organizations, including Team Rubicon, are critical to alleviating the shortages of medical personnel across the Navajo Nation. Other volunteer organizations assisting with epidemiology, contract tracing and medical care include Community Outreach Patient Empowerment, Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, Doctors Without Borders, Global REACH, Veterans Administration nurses, and the University of California-San Francisco’s HEAL Initiative, among others.

After COVID-19 cases begin a downward slope last summer, Team Rubicon deployed its second mission in November 2020 to the Gallup Indian Medical Center after being asked by Navajo Area IHS to help during an increase of COVID-19 related hospitalizations at GIMC. Currently, Greyshirts are assisting in emergency rooms and at testing sites. Team Rubicon Greyshirt Terri Whitson, a nurse and Navy veteran, administered the first rounds of COVID-19 vaccinations to GIMC medical staff on Dec. 15.

Team Rubicon will assist the Navajo Nation as it shifts into a mass vaccination effort in the coming weeks. This is the first time that Team Rubicon has helped or served Indigenous communities, says Dr. David Callaway, Team Rubicon’s chief medical officer.

While he has served as a provider on the frontlines in North Carolina, Callaway said Team Rubicon is happy to help the Navajo Nation with COVID-19 medical relief. “The way that we deploy is at the request of the Indian Health Service,” he said. “Even as our mission ended, we stayed in close contact with them. We work with local health systems, and come up with a plan to most effectively collaborate with the team on the ground.”

For Shields, who has been on the front lines with other Diné doctors and nurses, it is her connection to Dinétah and growth as a nurse that makes her mission under Team Rubicon a natural fit. Or, as she put, her belly button is buried in the Navajo Nation because it is where her path as a nurse began. “The Navajo Nation is near and dear to us,” Shields said, adding that her daughter attended school in Fort Defiance.

“When all this happened, I knew I had to get back there. I literally grew up on the Navajo Nation as far as my career is concerned.

“I know how to say, ‘Ya’ateeh,” she said. “Shi ei Alicia yinishye.”


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