DezBaa Altaalkii Damon
Damon and some young friends in Alaska
DezBaa Altaalkii Damon, Navajo, DMD, is currently practicing in Bethel, Alaska with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which manages a comprehensive health care system on behalf of 58 federally recognized Tribes and 50 rural communities in southwest Alaska. Damon is featured on the American Dental Association website where she describes a typical day in her life as a dentist that includes seeing a number of emergency patients as well as traveling to local Alaskan villages.
Damon is secretary of the Society of American Indian Dentists. She was a dental student when the following article was published.
Navajo, is a student at the Arizona School of Dental and
Oral Health who plans to practice Alaska. Like the other
Year 4 students Damon is spending weeks at a time doing 5
external rotations in underserved communities. When she is
back on campus, she cares for her panel of patients.
Damon’s first rotation was at Inscription House Indian Health Services Clinic. Her second rotation was in Barrow. She chose to go to Alaska because she had heard about the great need for dental care and the controversies regarding how best to provide that care. Damon enjoyed working in the clinic with 3 full-time dentists. The dentists care not only for the roughly 5,500 people in Barrows, but also for people in 5 remote villages that can only be reached by plane. Clearly Damon was well regarded by the director and staff. Towards the end of her rotation the director offered her a job, which she accepted after thinking about it when she got back home.
Damon had an unexpected experience when she arrived in Barrow. “I got to Barrow in time for the opening of the whaling season. The first day out one of the crew caught a whale. Everyone knew about it. The people gathered as the whale was butchered.” Damon was impressed that the Alaskan Native values are similar to the values of her nation and other southwest tribes. “Like us, they make sure you need an animal before taking it. Then you make sure that you use all of it and appreciate it.”
Damon’s third rotation was at the Winslow Service Unit of the Navajo Area Indian Health Care Center. Currently she is at Sage Memorial Hospital in Ganado in the heart of the Navajo Nation. Her last rotation will be in Bethel, Alaska. “One thing I’ve taken away from all my rotations is how much of a difference it makes being American Indian and being a provider. People are receptive to me because I’m like them. There’s an immediate understanding. Sometimes they open up to me more than they would to someone who doesn’t have an American Indian Alaskan Native background.
“I’ve been hearing Dr. Blue Spruce and others saying that there’s a need for American Indian dentists. I didn’t really take that in or feel it until I was on rotations. Now I get it.
“Sometimes you don’t realize that you are making a difference. At Inscription House, I had finished working with a patient and was writing my notes when someone from the front office called to say that the patient wanted to see me again. I immediately thought something was wrong. When I saw the patient she was smiling and asked, “Is it okay to take your picture?’ I was shocked. She explained, ‘I want your picture so I can show my kids who took care of me.’
A Fascination with Dentistry
“I was one of the weird little kids that liked going to the dentist. The instruments on the tray fascinated me. When I went to Arizona State University, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a dentist, but I kept my options open. I knew that I like to work with people and with my hands. I also like solving problems. By the second year, I knew for sure that I wanted to be a dentist so I started looking into dental schools and into ways to make myself competitive as an applicant.
Damon has enjoyed dental school. However, as a Navajo woman she had to deal with the taboo against dissecting human bodies. She worked this out with her family and with the medicine man.
“Identify and write down your short-term and long-term goals. Take the initiative to find out what you need to do to meet your goals. Don’t wait for others to do it for you. Be bold. Search the Internet. Talk with people. Keep a list of things you need to do. This can help keep you organized and motivated.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist, Buffalo Gouge, Creek and Cherokee, works with bright colors. Portraits are his main interest. For more information visit Art Exchange Galleries.) d
For a good summary of a typical day in Damon’s current life as a dentist, see the “Day in the Life” profile of Damon on the American Dental Association website.