Bill and Nancy Flood
Walking in Beauty in Navajo Country 6

Nancy Bo Flood smiles over a cup of chai as she shares a favorite memory from the many years that she and her husband, Bill Flood, M.D., spent in the Navajo Nation. “One of my favorite images was walking into the clinic at Inscription House through the waiting room. A mother was there with her little boy, about three or four years old. Next to him, a cradle board was propped up against the wall, and he was reading his little sibling a book while they waited for the doctor.”

“We were warned that as non-natives and outsiders, we might not be welcomed, but the reality was quite the opposite,” adds Bill. During the 13 years he worked as physician on the reservation, serving as a pediatrician at the Indian Health Services hospital in Chinle, Arizona, they felt welcomed. The Navajo would dress up to see the doctors. Women would don velvet skirts and jewelry, while the men would wear their best jeans, western shirts and broad-brimmed hats.

“The Navajos were very patient with our social bumbling,” he says. “We had to learn a completely different culture. I arrived not speaking the language and left the same way. We didn’t even know how to say goodbye properly, but they invited us to their homes, took us for hikes and allowed us to be present during their ceremonies.”

The couple, who have lived in Glenwood Springs since 1974, recently invited this reporter to a coffee shop to share memories of “time on the rez.”

Before moving to the Navajo reservation, the Floods had already lived in Samoa, Saipan, Haiti and Malawi. The couple volunteered to work abroad every third or fourth year because, in Bill’s words, “We wanted to give our kids the experience of giving back.” They spent 10 years in Saipan – he worked as a doctor, she as a teacher – then came back to Colorado when their kids began to marry and their aging parents needed attention. But medicine had changed.

“We heard that working for the Indian Health Service (IHS) was like being in a different world,” says Nancy.

“And that was for us!” adds Bill.

They intended to stay for one year, and wound up staying for 13. Bill liked that fact that every Native American – almost everyone on the reservation – was covered by the Indian health system. That meant that he was not dealing with insurance. “You might think that because they aren’t paying for it, the Navajos might take health care for granted,” says Bill. “But you would be in error. I never felt taken for granted. The Navajo appreciated us and the care we were able to deliver.”

Nancy chimes in. “One of the Navajo’s amazingly strong cultural values is called ‘walking in beauty.’ It’s both about compassion and gratitude. And it’s something they practice.”

While Bill was working as a pediatrician – and later designing an electronic records system for the IHS – Nancy taught at the Navajo Diné Community College and worked as a distance education instructor for grad students of Northern Arizona University. There’s admiration in her voice as she says, “I had students who were Head Start teachers who would get up at 4:30 to water the stock. They took care of grandma’s breakfast and fed their own kids. They would drive the bus, pick up Head Start kids from around the reservation, fix breakfast for them, teach them during the school day and get them back home by about 3:30. Then it was time to feed and water the sheep, goats and cows and fix dinner for their own children and families. After all that, they would come to my class! I would shake my head thinking that I couldn’t do all that, especially with no running water and no electricity!”

“The Navajos have a matriarchal society and women are expected to provide leadership,” she says. “I was inspired by the women in my classes and from the clinic. They were strong. Physically, yes, but also strong in taking care of extended family. They are just strong women.”

Nancy, who was the spark behind inviting a Roaring Fork Lifestyle reporter to “talk story,” turns out to be an accomplished professional storyteller herself. Among the 15 books published under her byline are a number of award-winning children’s books: The Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons was named Arizona Book of the Year and Warriors in the Crossfire, a novel about a young boy’s experience on the island of Saipan during World War II, was chosen Colorado Book of the Year. Her newest book, Cowboy Up, Ride the Navajo Rodeo, has been named a Junior Library Guild Selection. Nancy is “mostly retired” but teaches a writing workshop at Colorado Mountain College when she is not writing books.

Nancy and Bill met in high school, then attended the University of Minnesota, where she earned a Ph.D. in psychology and he was in medical school. At that point, Nancy had already completed an undergraduate degree in psychology in Beloit, Wisconsin, and Bill had a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

It was probably that engineering degree that got him involved with computerizing electronic health records. “Because of my engineering background, when the IHS first started with electronic records, around 2000, I was asked to help,” he says. “I got more involved as I moved toward retirement. It was a good fit.

Flood says that the project used the Veterans Administration’s system as a starting point. “The data didn’t quite fit,” he chuckles. “There were few women or children in the VA, and we didn’t need a date of deployment, but we worked from there…” Nancy jumps in and says, “Bill won’t toot his horn, but I will! He was invited to the White House to talk about all this!”

The records system that Bill helped develop has become the model for the nationwide American Indian Health system, and Flood, who works half-time from his Glenwood Springs home, was recently invited to give a presentation about it at a White House conference on the use of technology in medicine. The invitation came from President Obama.

Bill modestly deflects Nancy’s enthusiasm with a gentle smile. “The idea was to go and share input and ideas. We were chosen, and it was a compliment.”

“Now, he adds, “it is time to be back in Glenwood Springs.”  Nancy agrees, “It feels good to be home.”