Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr. ’02 | April 25, 2019
“I have the CPAP machine. I’ve had it for a year, but I don’t have electricity in my house. I stayed with my aunt who has electricity but things didn’t work out,” said the young Navajo man, his massive belly protruding out from underneath the tray table.
The old Navajo man with Parkinson’s disease, unable to walk fast enough to make it to the outhouse in time, had started taking anti-diarrheal medication to slow things down. He had taken so much that he required hospitalization for severe stomach cramps, a CT scan demonstrating a belly packed full of stool waiting to come out.
The elderly Navajo women frequently come in with signs of COPD or emphysema, often associated with those who smoked cigarettes their entire life. None of the Navajo women ever smoked, but they have lived with wood-fired stoves to heat their homes through the frigid mountain winters. In Haiti, where I live the other half of my life, the women suffer from the same constellation of symptoms from using open charcoal fires to cook for their families. Hazards of the job of being the caretaker in a matriarchal society; one last maternal sacrifice.
My professional time is split between my work with Innovating Health International in Haiti and as a doctor part-time in the U.S., and for the past few months, that has meant serving the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. I had heard that the poverty on native reservations rivaled that of middle-income countries, but I didn’t experience it, understand it, or perhaps even believe it until I started working with the community.
While the economics have been slowly improving, 38 percent of the people on the Navajo reservation live in poverty, and 19 percent suffer in extreme poverty — which, compared to other native reservations, is at or above average. The median age on the reservation is only 24 years old and the birth rate is 5.7, meaning the population continues to grow. On the reservation, an estimated 32 percent of all homes lack electricity, 31 percent do not have indoor plumbing, and 38 percent lack running water. In America. In 2019.
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