“I’m the kind of nurse who wants to get as much as possible out of my career rather than staying in one area,” says Yolanda Talbert, RN, BSN, LMT. “I want to see it all.”
That desire for many different experiences is at the heart of Talbert’s philosophy of life. At 50, this American Indian nurse has packed more adventure and spirit into her life than most people manage to do. A member of the Navajo Nation who now lives in Alaska, she is a mother, grandmother, caregiver, massage therapist, educator, artist and even a dog sled musher. The precious nature of time and all living things is something Talbert respects deeply. She epitomizes the tenet of Navajo spirituality that praises “life, the land and well-being.”
Talbert spent much of her childhood on the Navajo reservation in Ganado, Ariz., the second oldest of five girls. Her father was in the Air Force, so the family moved around a lot, including a stint in Germany. In addition to the frequent relocations, Talbert’s family life was made difficult by poverty and her parents’ alcoholism.
“Both my mother and father were impaired by alcoholism,” she recalls. “So my sisters and I had a rough time. We were very poor [on the reservation]. We lived in Third World conditions. My mom died when I was about 10, so my sisters and I were put in welfare homes for a while and then passed along to our relatives. My father was still alive, but he was still drinking, so we weren’t getting much support from him.”
Reservation life was not without hope, however. “I had a grand aunt that we had stayed with when all this upheaval was going on,” Talbert says. “She instilled in us that if we wanted to get out of our poverty situation, we had to go to school. Education was going to be our ticket out of poverty. And I think that has always been a factor for me.”
Talbert heeded her aunt’s words and finished high school, eventually getting an associate’s degree in fine arts while living in Oklahoma. In the 1970s, she “got married, had [two] children, and then I got divorced.” In 1982, she married her current husband, David, and they added another child to the family. David Talbert, like Yolanda’s father, was in the Air Force, so again she was traveling and living at various military bases. Eventually the Talberts were stationed in Leavenworth, Kansas, where David worked at the maximum-security military prison.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to go to go [back to] school,” Talbert remembers. “I wanted to try nursing. My dream school was the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. So my husband got out of the military and we moved to Denver, bless his heart.”
Starting nursing school at the age of 37 was another challenge for Talbert. “You needed to have a 3.0 grade point average to get into [the Colorado program],” she says. “So that was aiming pretty high. I’d never been in an academic environment at the university level. [My classmates] were so smart, and they were younger than I was. I was just blown away by how fast-paced the system was.
“In my first semester my GPA was only 1.8, but I caught up,” she continues. “I got a lot of support from the minority nurses group there that helped me survive on campus. And I had a very supportive family and kids and husband. They kept pushing me on: ‘C’mon, you can do it, you can do it.’”
Talbert’s interest in nursing can be traced back to her reservation experience—specifically to her great aunt, Adele Slivers. “During World War II, she was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and she was one of the nurses who was behind enemy lines,” Talbert explains. “She would tell us stories of how they would put the wounded on glider planes so they could get them to the hospital. There is a plaque [commemorating those nurses] at Sage Memorial Hospital [in Ganado], and she’s on that plaque.”
After graduating with her BSN from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center School of Nursing in 1992, Talbert needed to fulfill her Indian Health Service scholarship requirement of working in a Native American health care facility for two years. She applied for—and got—her first choice: Alaska.
“My dad had told me that he was stationed in Anchorage for about a year when I was a little girl,” she says. “He told me that Alaska Natives were really similar to the Navajos, [for example, in terms of their language].” There is indeed a historical connection: It’s believed that Alaska Native people—ancestors of today’s Navajo and Apache Indians—migrated from the far north of the North American continent to the American Southwest around 1000 A.D.
Over the next eight years, Talbert would work in a variety of health care settings in Alaska, including the IHS Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, and handle a variety of roles: Med/Surg nurse, home hospice care provider, nurse educator, utilization reviewer, ICU nurse (until she developed a latex allergy) and more. Not content with a full plate, she added another helping to her workload by doing registry nursing for the American Nursing Services staffing agency. It’s the variety that appeals to her, even when that means spending time behind bars.
“I work in three different corrections facilities right now,” Talbert says. “[Prison inmates] are very similar to pediatric patients. You have to use very concrete thinking with them. My husband’s a correctional officer and his philosophy is that they’ve committed a crime, they’re paying for the crime, there’s no reason to shove it in their face. You have to be professional. I’m always polite, and they respond really well.”
According to Talbert, health care in Alaska is “state of the art”—by necessity. With so many Alaskans living in rural and remote areas (called “the bush”) where the nearest hospital is miles away, the state has had to innovate to assure good health care for its residents.
“Some of the clinics in the larger villages have a physician assistant and some nursing staff,” Talbert explains. “If they don’t have those in the village, then they have a nurse assistant out there, and she works almost like an LPN. There are [telehealth] systems where [health professionals in the village] can relay information [by computer to doctors in Anchorage or other off-site locations] for emergency operations. [The physicians can pull up the image on their computers] to look at the patient and tell the nurse what she should do next while they’re getting ready to transport that person out.”
Nursing in Alaska is rife with challenges—which is right up Talbert’s alley. “You have to be adaptable,” she says. “Things break down and you just have to learn to be flexible. You could get stuck in a blizzard, or a snow machine could stall. Sometimes you won’t even have a phone. You have to be self-reliant.”
This spirit of being adaptable was the inspiration for a famous historical event that took place in Alaska in 1925. With an epidemic of diphtheria ravaging the Native population of remote Western Alaska and neither planes nor ships able to traverse the rough winter terrain, dog sled teams relayed much-needed diphtheria antitoxin serum from the Alaskan midlands to Nome on the far western seaboard. Today, that 800-plus-mile Serum Relay Run is recreated annually in Alaska. Four years ago, Yolanda Talbert was one of the dog mushers, riding alone across the wilderness with her own team of huskies.
When Talbert first heard about the re-enactment of the historic 1925 Serum Run, she knew she had to do it. She and her husband raised a dozen dogs, built their own sled and taught themselves how to mush “through a lot of trial and error,” she laughs. Until a separated shoulder halted her ride, Talbert had covered nearly 500 miles of the trek.
“I’d never gone that far,” she says proudly. “And I had to do it all by myself. I was dragged, knocked between trees, I sprained my ankle, got lost—and there’s nobody there to help you. I got a respiratory infection. All my nebulizers had frozen—it was 28 below zero! I ended up taking my emergency dog medication—Prednisone—but it worked.”
A year later, Talbert would rise to a more tragic challenge: She spent two weeks at Ground Zero in New York City after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as a member of the volunteer Alaskan Disaster Medical Assistance Team. Her experience working in the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center is something Talbert says she’ll never forget.
“[When we got there on] September 28, the status had changed from rescue to recovery [of the dead],” she says. “The critically injured victims had already been removed, so what we were there for was [to provide care to] the recovery workers. They’d drop things or get smashed hands; they’d suffer smoke inhalation, emergencies, heart attacks—all kinds of stuff. The site was still burning, so we had to wear our masks all the time. We set up four clinics there.
“You really felt like you were an American then, because [there were so many people from different nationalities] working for one goal,” Talbert continues. “The energy was just amazing. The scope of [the recovery operation] was enormous. You’d see those huge cranes and trucks right in front of you and they were humongous, but when you saw them out there in the field, they looked like little toy trucks. And the smell—I can still smell it to this day. When the snow falls [back in Alaska], it reminds me of the ash falling.”
Touching people—quite literally—is Talbert’s most recent passion. A licensed massage therapist (LMT), she is currently finishing an oncology massage certification program.
“Nursing is so demanding,” she says. “You’re so caught up with all the duties that you have very little time where you can relate to your patients. I felt that quality time was missing in my nursing. [As a massage therapist,] I’ve learned just how powerful touch is. It’s not like a massage you have in a spa—it’s totally different. It only takes five or 10 minutes out of my nursing time, and it makes such a big difference to the patient. I remember one time I was in NICU taking care of these little babies and every time I did a diaper change on them I’d do a light massage on the infants. None of the monitors were going off on my babies and the other nurses were saying, ‘That’s no fair, Yolanda.’”
For Yolanda Talbert, caring for people has been as important to her journey as embracing life to the fullest has been. Her Navajo heritage is interwoven with both her personal and professional life, and it all comes together to reinforce her belief in the importance of family.
“You are nothing unless you belong to a group,” Talbert emphasizes. “Whenever you introduce yourself to another Navajo, you introduce yourself by your clan. I’m Manygoats: That’s my mother’s clan. And I’m born for the Towering House People—that’s my father’s clan. So they know you belong to all these different people and they know what part of the reservation you’re from. You always belong to something.
“With nursing, I always consider [that concept of belonging] with my patients. What is the tribe that they belong to? What is their family unit like? That’s how I relate to them. They are part of a family. You’re not just treating the patient. You’re treating the whole family unit.”