The mouth of Canyon de Chelly. Photography courtesy of Dr. Erica M. Elliott.

Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert: My Life Among the Navajo People

A Memoir By Erica M. Elliott, M.D.

by Tamara Johnson

In her memoir, Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert: My Life Among the Navajo People, Dr. Erica M. Elliott shares a timely message: True wellness grows from empathy. Elliott realizes this lesson beautifully and vividly during her time working in the Navajo Nation.

“This is a healing story,” says Elliott. “Right now, there is so much suspicion, fear, distortion and hatred of people who are different. This is a story about bridging the divide between self and others. I hope that it can make a difference.”

Elliott has spent her very adventurous life making a difference. Besides being a story about healing, Medicine and Miracles is the story of a young woman discovering her purpose. She achieves this by following a driving sense of curiosity and service. Now seventy years old, Elliott is a solver of medical mysteries. She is the founder of The Commons on Alameda, a co-housing community and clinic in Santa Fe. There, Elliott applies her wealth of experience and holistic understanding of health to treat patients who have been failed by mainstream medicine. Board certified in family medicine and environmental medicine, she uses integrative therapies and emphasizes patient education.

Dr. Erica Elliott in Chinle, Arizona 1971.
Dr. Erica M. Elliott in her classroom in Chinle, Arizona 1971.

Many patients have come to her have chronic illnesses, or complex and puzzling ailments. “It’s not just a job [to figure these out],” says Elliott. “It’s my life’s purpose. I’m on my path.” She adds, “When you’re on your path, you find all sorts of energy because you know what you’re doing what is meaningful.”

The book introduces the reader to a young Erica. She has just arrived in the Navajo Nation to teach English in 1971. Initially dismayed by what she perceives as isolation, she commits to learning the language and culture in which she is immersed. She comes to love her students, their families and the stunning desert and canyons where they live. As her heart and mind open, she is invited to participate in world of wonders.

The experience sets her on a journey of exploration and education. The reader follows her from the American Southwest to the high Andes in Peru, the University of Colorado Medical School and to a family medicine clinic in the Jemez Mountains in the small, remote Northern New Mexico town of Cuba. Having been thrust into directing the clinic immediately after she completed medical school, she overcomes a relentless barrage of medical challenges through ingenuity, grit and sheer love for the community. She is ultimately rewarded with the seemingly miraculous gift of her son.

Dr. Erica M. Elliott (far right), standing with her Navajo grandmothers.
Dr. Elliott (far right), standing with her Navajo grandmothers after a peyote ceremony.
Dr. Erica M. Elliott and her horse.
Dr. Elliott and her horse.

Elliott’s inclusion of diary entries throughout the book establishes a sincere, wide-eyed, first-person perspective. The reader feels present in the time, place and emotion of her stories. It is engaging, inspiring and educational to be swept up in Elliott’s life.

Medicine and Miracles is the first of a four-part series in which Elliott’s stories of travel, learning, perseverance and love continue to unfold. “Every bad experience is a portal to something better,” she says. “My motto is ‘Never waste a bad experience.’ Everything leads you where you need to be.”

As we wind down 2020, Elliott’s motto feels especially apropos.

Tamara Johnson
Contributor

Tamara Johnson is a writer, educator and dancer living in Santa Fe. She grew up in New York and moved to New Mexico five years ago after a decade working in South America and Asia.

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