The Dead Medicine Man


Cuba, New Mexico, 1986

It was early summer—monsoon season—when I began my first job as a medical doctor, fresh out of training in family practice. An overcast sky greeted me on the day of my arrival, along with thunder and lightning.

Overhead, a dark cloud released a curtain of rain that poured down hard against my car, driven by gusts of wind. Within minutes, the red clay road turned into slick mud. My two-wheel-drive Honda slid from one side of the road to another as I struggled up the long incline toward my new home in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains overlooking the little town of Cuba, located in a remote area of northern New Mexico.

A four-wheel-drive pickup truck sailed past me. The driver peered through the side window at me, no doubt wondering about the newcomer snaking around in the mud.



After I finally reached the two-room adobe house that I had rented sight unseen, I spent the next few hours hauling my belongings into the musty, mouse-infested building.

By the late afternoon, as the sun was low on the horizon, I decided to take a break and drive back down the road to town. I wanted to introduce myself to the doctor on duty and other staff members at the clinic.

I hopped back into my muddy car. The steep, slippery road meandered through spectacular scenery with otherworldly rock formations and towering ponderosa pine trees. The invigorating, crisp mountain air smelled delicious—even in the rain.

As the road rapidly descended, the landscape became more typical of the high desert—dotted with sagebrush and interspersed with piñon and juniper trees. Rabbits darted in and out of my peripheral vision as I concentrated on keeping my wheels outside the deeply carved ruts in the road.

Once I finally turned off the bumpy dirt road and reached the pavement, I spotted a series of long, low, ramshackle buildings made of partially rotted wood with tin roofs. The sign in front read “The Cuba Health Center.” The building housed a nine-bed hospital along with a busy emergency room and outpatient clinic.

I tried to enter what looked like the front door but found it locked. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked louder and waited while the rain beat down on me. A Hispanic emergency medical technician in blue scrubs opened the door a crack, stuck his head out, and said, “What do you want?”

Taken aback, I responded warily, “I’m the new doctor.” He looked me over briefly and then opened the door wide to let me in. He said,

“We’ve been waiting for you.” He had a mischievous smile on his face that I didn’t know how to interpret.



The EMT led me to a small room where the medical practitioners wrote in their charts at the end of the day. Inside the room, the doctor on duty sat leaning back in his chair, with his feet on the desk. His piercing green eyes looked me over from head to toe in a friendly and flirtatious way. Then he took his feet off the desk, sat up in his chair, and said, “Hi, Erica. My name is Bill. You have no idea how glad we are to see you. I’m ready for a break from this place.”

Bill had been trained in emergency medicine. The administration in Santa Fe hired him on a temporary basis to work at the clinic until a permanent doctor could be found—someone willing to serve time in this isolated stretch of the Southwest.

It was a few minutes past five o’clock. I asked Bill, “When do you get to go home and get some rest?”

His answer took me by surprise. “I’m going home right now. You’re on call tonight. We’ll be alternating nights on duty. It’s just you and me, Doc. Tommy here will show you around,” he said, gesturing to the EMT who had let me in. “He’s one of our best EMTs. Good luck.”

I could never have imagined what was waiting for me that night.

Before Tommy went off duty for the evening, he gave me a tour of the facility. We walked down the dark, poorly ventilated hallways, stopping intermittently for cursory introductions to the various staff members as they were leaving for the day. After the brief tour, Tommy turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “You’ll be on night duty, starting now, until tomorrow morning. Then you’ll be seeing patients in the clinic all day. Good luck.”

I noted that both Tommy and Bill had ominously ended their sentences with “Good luck.”

Tommy’s casually dispensed news that my tour of duty was about to begin at that very moment made my mouth go dry and my heart



race. Before my senses could register what was happening, the clinic began to pulse with action as patients came in after hours to be seen for their ailments.

On his way out the door, Tommy added that a Navajo medicine man had been run over repeatedly, with a vengeance, by a drunken acquaintance in a truck. The crime had happened in front of a bar about 30 miles away. The driver had been charged with attempted murder.

“Oh, I forgot to mention that the two EMTs we sent out to get him are stuck in the mud. One of them just radioed in and wants to know what he should do.”

Not having a clue what the stuck EMTs should do, I asked Tommy how they would normally handle this situation. “Well, we would send out our other ambulance, but the battery is dead.”

A third EMT managed to recharge the dead battery, then sped off into the last light of the sun. I bolted into the trauma room to make a quick study of where everything was located while I waited anxiously for their return. A kind nurse practitioner, fairly new to Cuba, stayed and helped me get set up.

As we were running back and forth from the supply room to the trauma room, I noticed something odd at the end of the long, unlit hall. Water was trickling in under the clinic’s main entrance door. The stream of advancing water looked like a snake slithering sideways toward us, ever expanding in its width.

The nurse practitioner noticed the bewildered look on my face. “The maintenance man was supposed to fix that drainage problem today,” she said, annoyed. “I guess he didn’t get around to it. Whenever there’s a big downpour lately, the water gets funneled right into the clinic.” By the time she finished speaking, the water had reached my shoes and stopped just short of covering the tops.




Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert

Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert