Utah Navajo Health System, Inc. has a reputation for attracting outstanding, quality healthcare providers to serve the residents of San Juan County.
These providers include many local residents, who have gone on to careers as healthcare professionals, and many others who have relocated to this area from various regions of the United States, to find a new home with UNHS. For one of these providers, Nurse Practitioner Jason Duterte, the move to San Juan County carried an extreme form of culture shock that doesn’t seem to have had any ill effects so far.
Duterte, a native of the Philippines who moved to New Jersey with his family as a youth, spent most of his adult life in the population anthill known as Manhattan, in New York City, with a population of around four million people. At the end of 2014 he accepted a position with UNHS and within a few weeks found himself working, and living, in the most remote UNHS location of all, Navajo Mountain, with it’s population of around 395 people.
Although the Manhattan native said his experience in Navajo Mountain has been nothing like he expected, he has adjusted to his circumstances well.
“The remoteness has been the biggest adjustment and having nothing to do in the evening,” Duterte said. “But believe it or not, I’ve had a lot more family and friends visiting since I moved here than I did when I lived in New York City. When they visited there I was a tour guide, but this is new. Since I started posting pictures everyone wants to visit.”
His parents spent a couple of months with him last year, while he was settling in to his new home, and will be back again this year. His uncle and aunt were also here about a month last year and will be back again. And he has other relatives who came to visit, and more who want to visit this year. In addition to hosting family members like a Holiday Inn, Duterte has also gotten to know many of the residents of Navajo Mountain. He said he sees an average of 12 to 20 patients many days, while other days are slower and others are busier. He also makes house calls to a few elderly patients who live farther away and might not be able to get to the clinic on a regular basis, and a few patients who might need additional care after being seen at the clinic.
“Some of the residents look forward to our visits. I also do some consultations at Wal-Mart in Page, Arizona, when I see patients there, shopping,” he laugh-ed. Page is the nearest city to Navajo Mountain, about an hour and forty-five minutes away. “I hope the people feel comfortable with me. Some patients even ask if I’m native.”
Duterte has been seen at a convenience store in Page, looking like a native with his Turquoise necklace. He said he even considers greeting the clerk with an authentic ‘Ya’at’eeh’. His cover is blown though because, as he says, no Navajo would be seen wearing patent leather shoes and a scarf, looking like someone from out of town.
“The clerk says, ‘you’re not from around here are you?’ and I just shake my head and laugh. ‘I live up in the mountain but I’m from New York,” he tells the clerk smiling.
He may be from the Big Apple, but Duterte is adjusting to life in Naatsis’áán – meaning Head of the Earth – as Navajo Mountain is known. He said some of the elderly women he treats have become his favorite patients and he’s been befriended by a local Medicine Man, who invited him to attend a Squaw Dance. Navajo Mountain has become a second home and he tells his friends in Manhattan he might not return.
“It’s quite an honor to have a Medicine Man as a friend. But you know you’ve made it when you’re lining up at Starbucks at Safeway, in Page, and there’s a long line, and Renee at the counter goes, ‘Yo, Navajo Mountain Man! What do you want?” Duterte laughs.
He also relates his experience with one law enforcement officer in San Juan County, when he first arrived in the area, and was driving toward Montezuma Creek.
“I’ve had two traffic warnings already,” he explains. “First was my second week. No one was on the road and I was on my way back to Montezuma Creek, and I see lights. I stop, and the officer comes up and he said, where are you going? And I said Montezuma Creek, and he asked if I worked at one of the clinics, and I go yes. And he said wait a minute. ‘California plates, New York drivers license and you’re here?’ And I said I just moved here about two weeks ago. And he asks if I am from Manhattan. I said yes, and he starts cracking up. I said, wait until you hear where they’re going to send me from Montezuma Creek. And he goes where? And I said Navajo Mountain. He goes, ‘Here. This one’s on me,’ and gives me back my license. ‘Don’t speed.’ Now sometimes I just go 63 mph so the police can pass me.” He laughed as he told the story and said he’s had a similar experience driving to Page.
While he’s enjoyed his time at Navajo Mountain, Duterte says he has learned a lot he didn’t realize before he arrived.
“One of my biggest mistakes I made when I moved here was thinking everyone was like the people in Manhattan. At least I thought they all had amenities but they don’t. Some don’t even have water or electricity. One of the biggest challenges is that sometimes my patients don’t even know what they’re taking when I give them medication. I try to explain to them but even with the ones who speak English I don’t know if they just take it because it is given to them. They don’t bother with the explanation about why they have to take it. I always have someone who speaks Navajo with me, but it’s still an ongoing thing,” he said.
All things considered, Duterte said he’s enjoyed the past year at Navajo Mountain and has no regrets. He said everyone thinks when you live in New York you’ve made it. Everyone wants to go to New York, but he has learned to appreciate the simple life in Navajo Mountain. He said it’s almost like being an old-fashioned country doctor, who even makes house calls.
“The first year has been a learning experience. I still have anxiety in the morning about what I’m going to see,” he said. “I never know what I’m going to see. Sometimes at night I get a knock at the door. It hasn’t happened for a while, but if a patient is really bad when I see them, I’ll tell them, if it gets really bad in the night come see me, and sometimes they do.”
Duterte said he enjoys working with the staff at Navajo Mountain.
“We try to have a relaxed atmosphere,” he said. “It gets busy here but we still have time to talk to patients and spend time with them.”
Sonya Sloan, a Medical Assistant/Patient Registrar at the Navajo Mountain Clinic, says the staff enjoys working with Duterte.
“Working with Jason is good. He fits in well. He’s learning Navajo and we’re helping him,” Sloan said. “We like having him here. The patients all seem to like him. He’s become part of the community and gets mistaken for being Navajo. But they tell him his shoes don’t fit in.”
Duterte admits his Navajo still needs a lot of work, but he’s learning. But he doesn’t plan on getting rid of his patent leather shoes. He also admits that while he talked about working in a remote location during his schooling, he didn’t realize there was an organization like UNHS, or a place like Navajo Mountain out there.
“This is an experience I’ll remember forever,” he adds. “They (UNHS) started asking me what my plans are for next year. I’ll see. I like it here and I keep telling Dr. Jones (UNHS Medical Director Dr. Val Jones), I like it here and I’m not going anywhere yet.”
That’s good news for residents of Navajo Mountain and for UNHS. Hopefully, the Navajo Mountain Man will continue to be a valuable member of the UNHS family for a long time.