Communicator of the Month: Raymond Joe — Navajo Health Hero

Original artwork depicting Navajo Health Hero Raymond Joe. He is shown in profile wearing a mask.

Our Communicator of the Month series showcases individuals whose voices have made a lasting impact on our country. In 2022, we recognize 11 of humanity’s heroes who helped — oftentimes unknowingly — identify, treat, teach others and spread awareness about COVID-19.

“No matter what, a nurse will be at your bedside doing everything they can to save your life while risking their own lives as well as their families’. Let our sacrifices become well worth the effort.” — Raymond Joe

Raymond Joe passed away in 2020 before his 50th birthday.

You can say that Navajo nurse and combat veteran Raymond Joe spent his career on “the front lines”: first in defending his country, and second in healing his community. As a nurse in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was one of the first health professionals serving this population to draw attention to the disparities and lack of support in their hospitals, effectively declaring these spaces “war zones.”

Joe served the in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years where he earned four medals during his service. His nursing career spanned several roles including as a flight nurse in the Marines, and a cardiology and ICU RN in New Mexico.

When the COVID-19 virus began to spread, Joe could not ignore the continued stress, sadness and life-altering choices required to battle the pandemic. He had spent years pleading with local public officials to address the poverty and the lack of running water and indoor plumbing within the community; given these realities, he warned in 2020 that a serious outbreak of the coronavirus would “devastate his people.”

Joe took to the media to share his experiences and communicate about the seriousness of COVID-19 and the toll it was taking on the health care system. In a letter to the editor of the Navajo Times, he shared his personal struggles in balancing the health of his patients and the health of his family: “This virus has turned my job into a blessing and a curse at the same time. My expertise in my field has opened numerous opportunities. However, this could be a curse if I catch the virus doing the job that I love and have to pay with my life.”

His empathetic storytelling ensured people felt seen while educating them on ways to stop the spread. “Maybe you will understand if you put yourself in my shoes. The choices you make today influence all those around you. If you make the sacrifices today, we will have a much brighter tomorrow,” he said in his Navajo Times letter.

In the fall of 2020, Joe and his family contracted the COVID-19 virus. Joe’s colleagues worked tirelessly for 24 days to provide care, but on December 19 at the age of 48, he passed away from complications related to the virus.

Joe’s wife Eugenia Johnson remembers him as kind, witty and “someone who would try to make people happy if they were feeling down.” Love from across the region poured in following his passing, with food and gifts for his three children as Christmas approached. Followers on social media also shared their grief and gratitude for Joe’s service.

“He looked out for all of us,” said Joe’s colleague Suzanne Lewis.

Since Joe sounded the alarm on COVID-19’s ramifications within this community, attention has been given to the disease’s disproportionate impact on the Navajo Nation, including research studies and demands for national resources to combat the pandemic. In 2021, the American Recovery Rescue Plan allotted $22 billion to the Navajo Nation, “the most any tribe received to go toward mitigation and relief of COVID-19.”

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