Honored for efforts to heal: Taking 'road less-traveled,' he served Navajos on reservation

Elder J Ballard Washburn of the Seventy can't talk about his 27 years of medical practice among the Navajo people without revealing tender emotions about his experiences. And though he didn't spend those years of practice with the thought of acclaim or recognition, his efforts were noted Sept. 21 as he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Utah Medical Association.

Elder Washburn, a native of Blanding in southeastern Utah, established a general practice in Page, Ariz., in 1959, and labored there until being called as president of the Arizona Phoenix Mission in 1987. He subsequently was called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy in March 1990.During his years of practice, he worked out of a 25-bed hospital in Page and spearheaded the placement of four clinics on Navajo Reservation sites, which he would visit once a week. He was heavily involved in Church work during that same period, serving in a branch presidency and bishopric, and as a stake president and regional representative. He also served on the local school board for 21 years.

Elder Washburn said that while growing up in Blanding, his stake patriarch and seminary teacher, Albert R. Lyman, instilled within his heart a sense of responsibility toward the Lamanite people. "I grew up with that as part of my heritage," he said.

During his first year at BYU, Elder Washburn was a music major who played the French horn in the concert band and sang in various choral groups and loved every minute of his involvement in music. He left after a year to serve in the New England States Mission, under the direction of Elder S. Dilworth Young.

"When I came home, the Lord led me into medicine through the university courses that I took and enjoyed."

While a student at BYU, Elder Washburn married Barbara Harries, who he had met there. He subsequently graduated from the University of Utah Medical School, filled an internship at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City and completed his residency in California. At that time, construction of the mammoth Glen Canyon Dam had just started on the Utah-Arizona border. A few square miles were extracted from reservation land for the establishment of the small community of Page.

"There hadn't been anything there before, and with the advent of Page they built a beautiful little 25-bed hospital," recalled Elder Washburn. "We kind of felt like the Lord put it there for us. That gave us the opportunity to practice medicine where we wanted to in the way we wanted to and to be with the Lamanite people. We enjoyed our years there very much."

In addition to traveling on the reservation at least once a week to administer medical care, Elder Washburn dedicated every Thursday night to doing Church work among the Navajos. And he wasn't hesitant to mix medicine and Mormonism when appropriate.

"I would try and spend time on the reservation every week doing Church work, but I wasn't too timid in the clinics to talk about the gospel, either," he said. "They are a friendly, kind people. Those who didn't want to know more about the Church weren't offended in any way by that. They understood my stand and they are still my friends. A lot of them are still not members of the Church but are good friends. Those who were receptive, we helped them learn the gospel, and many of them came into the Church. We had many enjoyable, wonderful experiences."

One of those he invited to take the missionary discussions later served as bishop in one of the Page wards. "You feel good when those kinds of things happen."

When visiting the clinics on the reservation, Elder Washburn would usually drive. But because of the great distance to the Navajo Mountain clinic, he would have someone fly him there in a small single-engine plane. They would land on a bumpy strip cleared among the sagebrush. He decided to get his pilot's license and fly himself, and had just soloed for the first time when he got a telephone call from President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency, calling him to serve as regional representative and asking him to stay out of small airplanes.

"That brought a quick end to my flying career," said Elder Washburn, smiling.

While most of his medical experiences were positive, including the delivery of at least several hundred babies, Elder Washburn also experienced his share of heartache. There were 17 men killed during construction of the dam, most of them from being struck by falling objects. Then there were automobile and other accidents, sometimes resulting in death or disabilities, or other untimely deaths from sudden illnesses.

He recounted being informed in the middle of the night by a nurse of a mother who died suddenly and unexpectedly in the Page hospital. Elder Washburn drove out to the family's humble home on a desert plateau in the early morning hours to inform the husband and children.

"It was just getting light as I arrived, and I'll never forget through all eternity their expressions of love for their sweet mother at her passing. The years have gone by since then and I still see their family members often. They remember that occasion very well, but they have perfect peace in the assurance that they are an eternal family.

"That wasn't the way you like your medical experiences to turn out, but with the gospel you know they are going to be an eternal family, and that's what matters."

Elder Washburn was quick to credit his wife for her support and strength during their tenure in Page. "She has been a major part of all this, and none of it would have happened without her. She was a wonderful mother to eight sons and two daughters and had more than a dozen Indian foster children in our home over the years. She's always been kind and gentle with them. She also would go onto the reservation and teach seminary and was very much a part of what went on there."

In the citation from the Utah Medical Association that accompanied his award, it was noted: "There are those among us who choose a different path - one less traveled than others; a path more difficult because of the magnitude of the hardships involved. We wish to honor this evening one such person, Dr. J Ballard Washburn, whose 27 years of practice was spent among the Navajo people.

"During those many years, he was instrumental in improving the overall health care of these Native Americans. Largely through his efforts, four clinics were set up to reach the remote reservation sites. . . .

"During the years of Dr. Washburn's service to the Navajo Nation, he saw many improvements - paved roads, running water, electricity - but none please him as much as the improvement in the infant mortality rate. Dr. Washburn characterizes his practice as "the old style" where he administered his own anesthetics, did surgeries and delivered babies. . . .

"We are proud to honor Dr. Washburn with this Distinguished Serve Award in recognition of exemplary service in improving the health of Native Americans."

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