American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month: Revina Talker, PA-C, Shares Her Story

Revina Talker, PA-C

From a young age, University of Utah PA program graduate Revina Talker, PA-C, knew there was a need for more Navajo healthcare providers in her community. Today, she is a practicing PA and community leader with the Utah Navajo Health System in Navajo Mountain, whose summit is the highest point of the Navajo Nation. She also works with the Gallup Indian Medical Center in the emergency department and in the Army Reserves. See our conversation with Revina to learn about her experiences as a PA, the health needs of her community, and more.

What brought you to where you are today?

I grew up on the reservation, and I remember going to our local hospital with my grandfather and never seeing any Navajo or Native providers or speaking to interpreters. Once, he was there to get checked for his thyroid because he had hypothyroidism. I was a kid, and I tried to explain that something was going on with his chest area. The doctors freaked out, put him in the ER, and hooked him up to an EKG. After a while, they figured out that he was there just for a thyroid check. I remember my grandpa said, “They tossed me around like a pregnant lady, and I was just there for my thyroid.” There was a lot of confusion and there still is for elderly Native people today. In fact, I recently had a co-worker tell me yesterday that a grandma came in for a urine infection and was told she had cancer because the healthcare team misinterpreted what she was saying. This let me know at a young age that we needed more Navajo providers who speak the language.

As a Navajo speaker, I can explain things to our elderly community members. I take time to explain their care, and time and time again, they say, “Thank you for explaining that. No one ever explained it to me like you did.” It’s so rewarding to hear them say thank you for coming back to work with us and for being here.

As a graduate of the University of Utah PA program, are you still involved with the program now?

Absolutely! I started bringing PA students in to work in our clinics starting in 2010, and I take a student every other month. I know the staff love having students because they’re so young and energetic. They have a contagious enthusiasm, even in the simple or routine things. I love to see them learn. I want to open their eyes to Native care. It’s important for them to see the challenges our community is facing here. It’s so different when they see it for themselves, rather than only talking about it in the classroom. When students come to the reservation, they see people without water or electricity. They see how their treatment plan must change based on the resources available or unavailable to the patient. I love providing that opportunity for them to learn those things.

Do many of the students come back and work with you after they graduate?

I think we’ve hired six alumni! It’s rewarding for them to see that we need their help and then come back and work in our community.

Tell us about your work at Utah Navajo Health System.  

I do family medicine full-time and emergency medicine part-time. I’m the clinic manager at the Navajo Mountain clinic, which is about an hour and a half east of Lake Powell, Arizona. We have a high school and elementary school here, and that’s it. The nearest gas station is about 30 minutes south of here, and the nearest Walmart is an hour and a half away. Some of the people here have running water; some don’t. Some have electricity; some don’t. In an area east of here called Pine Canyon, there is a section of the road that’s so horrible, it takes an hour to drive two miles. So, when I have patients that come from there, I make sure we try to fit them into the schedule and refill their medicines. Sometimes they don’t make appointments, and that’s okay. They walk in, and I prioritize them. Many of our people here struggle with transportation, so it’s especially challenging to get them to specialty care. We try to get them the care that they need, but it’s hard.

What has the COVID-19 pandemic been like for your community?

At the beginning of COVID, we were doing some home visits, checking vitals, and sending out care packages. The clinic staff came together. They were going out into our community, delivering packages, and checking on people. It was amazing but also daunting for them because we lost members of the community. These were people they grew up with, people that they knew. For me, working in the ER was overwhelming, because when I diagnosed someone with COVID before the vaccine, you really didn’t know if they were going to make it. I heard people saying, “I just lost my sibling,” or “I lost my spouse.” How does someone handle that?

How is your community doing today?

When the pandemic hit, there was a push to self-isolate. But keep in mind that some people don’t have water or electricity. They had to go to the laundromat or get food, so it was a challenge to meet their needs while also staying safe. But once we got the vaccine, our people ran to get it. I think we have vaccinated 90% to 95% of the community.

How has your experience as a Diné woman informed your practice? 

I think my working as a PA impacts the younger generation, because when they see me working in the clinic or the ER, it inspires them to get into medicine as well. I also think that older people want to come in and see me because I speak Navajo. In the ER, I had one lady say, “What’s your name? I want to see you every time we come.” I think people feel more comfortable if they see someone from their own background. I can understand them and the challenges they have faced. That’s the impact I think I’ve seen. I hope I’m able to serve as an example to the youth and the community.

How would you encourage a young person in your community who might want to serve in the healthcare field?

When I was growing up on the reservation, my mom told us we had to get a college education, and if we could, to go beyond that – get a master’s or graduate degree. And that’s the path I chose. Looking back, I see that it’s been a blessing to me to get an education, so I always advocate for that. I always tell people to get an education and to go all the way. The sacrifice is worth it. It will bless your life, and not only your life, but everyone else around you.

What do you want others to know about your experiences serving your community?

It’s challenging but rewarding. And if they ever get a chance to work in a rural area, even just for a short period of time, I encourage them to do it. Working in a rural area fulfills our mission as PAs: to help those that need help the most. The University of Utah’s PA program mission, “To serve the underserved,” summarizes what we do well. I love this profession. It’s a blessing for me to be in this profession, and I’m grateful for it all the time.

Tell us about your military service.

I have always had respect for our veterans, and in talking to recruiters, I realized that they need PAs in the Army Reserves. I did it to serve. I joined in 2009, and about two years later, they asked me to go to Kuwait. My husband, who was in the Guard, was very supportive. I did primary care and took care of the soldiers. They want me to go out again to serve our soldiers, and I will do the best I can to do it. I’m thankful my husband understands the sacrifice. I will do this as long as I can.

Why should PA programs put a high emphasis on recruiting Native students?

I think it’s important because most of those Natives students will go back to their communities. If we can prepare them and set them up to succeed, they will go back. That investment would help programs and help communities in the long run. But we must reach these students from a young age and begin preparing them from high school, if not elementary school. We need to help them understand that they can enter healthcare and succeed – and that we have confidence in them.

 Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

I came from a single-parent home, and we were poor. My mother made sacrifices, and we barely survived on her meager income. However, she offered encouragement and teachings to pursue an education and use that to elevate our lives and come back to our people and help them. I accomplished that and graduated from the University of Utah with a master’s degree from the PA program. I am humbled and grateful to be in this profession. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my husband, family, friends, and UPAP faculty.