Decades ago, during his medical training, Dr. Ron Lujan finished checking patients during grand rounds with colleagues at the University of New Mexico Hospital and then went back to sit with a frightened elderly Taos Pueblo woman. He gently explained her medical condition and treatment to her in their native Tiwa.
His colleagues asked him later what he had been doing. When Lujan told them, “They were shocked. They hadn’t thought about bilingual beyond Spanish or about talking to a patient in their native language,” recalled Lujan’s wife, Jan Lujan.
It is among many stories she and others share of a man who championed Indian health, broke barriers and defied expectations as the first Taos Pueblo man to become a surgeon and one of the first Native American surgeons in the United States to speak his native language.
Dr. Lujan died Sept. 9 in his sleep in Albuquerque. He was 71.
He grew up ranching with his father and grandfather at Taos Pueblo. It was hard, backbreaking work. But he learned his people’s traditions and the self-sufficiency skills handed down through generations. He spoke only Tiwa until he started classes at Taos Day School, said his wife.
“Our mom and dad [Tonita and Juan G. Lujan] were of the age that the kids weren’t idle,” said his sister, Judy Lujan. “Once the chores were finished, they would send Ron over to help other families.”
Raised with the hard work of running cattle, baling hay, chopping firewood and the myriad other chores of country life, Dr. Lujan still found time for a little troublemaking with his cousins. Once, he and some cousins were tired of a mean tom turkey in his mother’s yard. While one of the boys distracted the bird, another managed to tag the turkey with a zip gun, setting its tail feathers on fire. The boys debated who was going to tell Dr. Lujan’s mother the news, recalled his sister with a chuckle.
“He was a really good big brother,” said Judy Lujan of her older brother.
And he was studious, she said. “He hated to miss school,” she said.
It wasn’t easy to study. When he was young, the Pueblo lacked electricity. Once, he used that struggle to argue for a higher grade on a paper from a teacher. “He told her he should have gotten at least A- because he had to write by kerosene lantern and everyone else had electricity,” Jan Lujan said. “She said, ‘If you want an A, you need to write an A paper. I don’t care if you have to do it by kerosene.’ She was his favorite teacher.”
He was a sophomore at Taos High School when his academic skills caught the eye of the Rev. Robert Q. Kennaugh, a priest of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Kennaugh helped get Lujan a two-year scholarship in 1965 to the private Haverford School in Pennsylvania to finish high school.
He played some football and then joined the school’s rowing crew. “I don’t know if he had ever seen one of those boats before then,” Jan Lujan said.
Back East, he grew used to being different. “He knew he had to be twice as good as everyone else, and he was,” Jan Lujan said. “He was screamingly smart. “
After graduation, he had several athletic scholarship offers, including to Stanford University and Dartmouth College. He chose the University of Denver to be closer to home.
While studying at the University of Denver, he met his wife, who lived in the same apartment building. “He was tall, dark and handsome. I didn’t stand a chance,” Jan Lujan recalled recently from their home in Albuquerque.
They married 49 1/2 years ago. “He was amazing,” she said.
He transferred for his last two years of college to the University of New Mexico and was accepted to medical school.
“He was obviously different when he was in medical school. He didn’t fit in,” said Jan Lujan. “His father and grandfather hadn’t been doctors. They were ranchers. And he looked different.”
Only a couple of the medical school students weren’t white and he was the only Native American in the class, Jan Lujan recalled.
He struggled with some classes and left school for a year. “He sat in the living room, with a stack of his textbooks on one side and read everything from cover to cover,” his wife said. “I would come home from work and take the books he had finished to a back bedroom.”
When the year ended, he went back to medical school “and did very well from then on out.”
After a residency in family practice, he was accepted to a residency in general surgery. “Since he grew up butchering [livestock], he understood a lot more than other students,” Jan Lujan said.
In 1982, he went to work at Acoma-Cañoncito-Laguna Hospital. There, he worked with patients from surrounding pueblos and the Navajo Nation. He traveled to clinics in Chinle, Arizona, as well as Rehoboth and Crownpoint in New Mexico.
“He became a strong advocate, particularly for Pueblo seniors,” Jan Lujan said.
He always worked as a private practitioner, never for Indian Health Service, Jan Lujan said.
The couple had three sons: Erik, a health care program director; Ira, a glassblower in Pojoaque/Santa Fe; and Gabe, who is carrying on the family’s ranching tradition raising grass-fed beef at Taos Pueblo through Thunderbird Ranch and Cattle Company.
The members of the family traveled to Taos Pueblo every year for San Geronimo Feast Day, Christmas and other special events. And they spent part of each summer helping with the ranch.
Still, Dr. Lujan missed a lot of meals and family time to take care of his patients. He would sometimes barely arrive home from a long day at the hospital when he would get another call and head back out. Native patients would sometimes drive long distances just to track him down for treatment.
“His thing was all about meeting with patients one-on-one,” said Gabe Lujan. “He would leave home early to discharge patients personally. That’s the kind of doctor he was. He would speak to the people, explain to them what was going on in terms they could understand. I always see him as an advocate.”
Outside of the hospital setting, “he never told anyone he was a doctor,” Judy Lujan said. “He didn’t dress like a doctor. He was dedicated, disciplined, quiet and humble.”
Gabe Lujan remembers his father always quietly fighting to get Native people the credit they deserved. “He was trying to prove to people that Indians weren’t dumb. People were always talking down on Indians,” he said.
His father pushed himself and those around him to learn. “He was always kind and gentle until you pissed him off,” Gabe Lujan said. “If you said something that wasn’t a fact, he would point that out.”
In 2000, Dr. Lujan saw how good a lot of the Indian basketball players were from Acoma, Zuni and other tribes. He recruited a bunch of the players, formed a team and dubbed them the Road Warriors. They traveled around to reservation and statewide tournaments. Lujan sponsored the teams, paying for it out of pocket.
Gabe Lujan, the youngest son, was one of the players. And on a dark night one year driving to a game, Gabe Lujan hit a patch of black ice and his truck flipped. He was rushed to a nearby hospital with a collapsed lung. His dad walked in and when he saw what was happening, he took quick action. Gabe Lujan said he wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for his father’s skills.
Dr. Lujan worked until 2005, when he contracted a virus that settled in his heart, said Jan Lujan. He retired to focus on his own health, but he remained an advocate for Native American issues until he died.
He served on the New Mexico Indian Council on Aging Health Committee, which lobbied lawmakers to address and improve Native American health services.
“He did so much for others,” said his sister, Judy Lujan. “It was time for him to rest.”