American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

Q&A with Dr. Crystal Cunningham, Navajo Nation, Chinle, AZ

Crystal Cunningham, MD, FACS, is a surgeon on the Navajo Nation in Chinle, AZ. In a written Q&A, she shares the struggles specific to her community and the importance of leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: Can you describe your experience with COVID-19 so far?
A: COVID-19 is an invisible enemy, and thus far, I have been using my experience in humanitarian surgery to mitigate the deleterious effects surgery can have on propagating this foe.

Q: What are some of the challenges and strengths specific to your community in dealing with COVID-19?
A: I am on the Navajo Nation and our small community spread this with a Ro (reproduction number) that I don't even think has been calculated because it is too depressing. I have been given hope by the President of the Navajo Nation who encourages his people with words of strength and common sense. Our community is very vast and rural, and information on the COVID-19 spread has been best reported from the Navajo Nation Task Force for the pandemic.

Q: What has the ramp-up been in your hospital to treat the expected COVID-19 surge?
A: The ramp-up in the hospital in general has been under the auspices of medicine, and surgery has been ill-informed of structural changes. It is a constant fight for our safety, the safety of our health care worker colleagues, the community, and the patient.

Q: How are you obtaining information and adapting to changing needs as COVID-19 spreads?
A: I have been proactive in contacting our tertiary care centers to understand their approach and have been grateful to be a Fellow of the ACS, where I have received safety guidance and communal support for the struggles.

Q: Do you have any specific lessons learned that you would like to share?
A: If you can lead, lead. If you can't lead, make sure you understand the risk to yourself, your community, and your patients.