Joy and Edgar Boone with a view from Sunrise Peak on the Fort Apache reservation in Arizona.
By Dave Zuchowski
Edgar and Joy Boone had enjoyed a comfortable life with their 21-year medical practice in Westmoreland County, but last week, the couple, both doctors, headed to a new life in the mountains of Arizona.
Their destination: White Mountain Apache Reservation, a place about the size of Delaware that is home to 17,000 people.
There, they will become federal employees and practicing physicians with the Indian Health Service, established in 1955 and part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"It was a very difficult decision to make," Dr. Boone, 56, said. "My wife and I spent a lot of time in prayer and finally decided to make the move last September for a lot of reasons.
"First off, the reservation needs doctors with our qualifications. We're outdoor people and like the area, which has a different kind of beauty than you find in southwestern Pennsylvania. Our church denomination also has several missions on the reservation that we hope to be able to work with."
The Boones, members of Norwin Christian Church in North Huntingdon, have strived to take a spiritual perspective to their medical practice, which was in the Herminie section of Sewickley Township. They have been on several missions before, including one in Arizona. That gave them the opportunity to drive through the area, about 160 miles northeast of Phoenix, that will be their new home.
The couple will live in a small compound of government homes next to the reservation hospital. Five days a week, Edgar Boone will drive more than 55 miles of rugged terrain and canyons to Cibecue, with 1,500 to 2,000 residents, and work at the Cibecue Health Center, an outpatient clinic. Joy Boone, 54, will work part time at the center.
"I have to commend the Boones for their big leap of faith, and we're excited about their arrival," said David Yost, clinical director of the Whiteriver Service Unit. "They're a good fit for our operation."
Shortly after they arrive, tribal members will mentor the Boones during several weeks of cultural orientation. They'll also get a specific medical orientation that will focus on the types of illnesses they might encounter.
"The tribe still has traditional healers, what non-Indians might call medicine men, which is a very private part of life on the reservation," Dr. Yost said. "A number of our clients sometimes go to the traditional healers, a parallel aspect to their lives that we acknowledge and respect."
Poverty is high on the reservation; the unemployment rate ranges from 40 to 60 percent and is even higher in the Cibecue area. With little private industry in the area, the school system and government are the major employers. Some revenue comes from raising cattle and, in the past, the forest industry offered additional employment, but it slowed considerably after a massive forest fire in the area in 2002.
The tribe on the eastern side of the reservation operates a casino and the Sunrise Park Ski Resort, which employs a couple hundred people in the winter season.
Maladies such as diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism and infectious diseases are common. Because 90 percent of the homes are heated with wood, the medical center also treats a lot of burns.
"The Boones will probably see a lot of trauma," Dr. Yost said. "Many people ride around on the back of pickup trucks, and there are a lot of accidents with large free-roaming animals such as elk, horses and deer. It also gets very cold here in the winter, and people sometimes suffer from exposure to freezing temperatures."
According to Dr. Yost, the geology of the reservation resembles a tilted table that slants from 11,500 feet in elevation to about 3,000 feet. Cibecue lies somewhat in the mid-range at about 5,000 feet. In the winter, the clinic sometimes must close because of snow. The area's isolated roads don't always see an immediate snow plow.
Despite the geographic and cultural disparity from what they've been used to, the Boones have signed a two-year contract with the facility and expect to stay and work there indefinitely.
Two doctors affiliated with Excela Health have decided to take up the Boones' former practice in Herminie.