Student's Experience in Interior Alaska
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Jamie Viterna, Medical Student, ATSU
If I could describe the greatest adventure to have in medical school, it would be travelling to Alaska for a rotation in a remote village of the Interior. Thanks to NWRPCA, Alaska’s AHEC, and ATSU-SOMA, I was provided this extraordinary experience. My rotation was in Galena, Alaska at the Edgar Nollner Health Center. Galena has a population of 480, is culturally about 70% Koyukon Athabascan, and is only accessible by boat, SnoGo, or plane.
As a visitor to the Interior, I found that everyone in the community was extremely welcoming, and everyone is treated like family. During my rotation, I lived with multiple different families, including the physician assistant (PA) for Galena. She is an Alaskan Native who grew up in Galena, trained to become a PA in Washington State, and then moved back to Galena to care for her community. I also lived with the Korta family, consisting of the social worker for the clinic and the the mayor (who also competed in the Iditarod). Their kids are very involved in sports, and most of the community regularly supports high school sporting events. I felt immediately like family in the community. Within weeks of arriving in Alaska, I was invited to house-sit and dog-sit, I went boating on the Yukon River, participated in a community event to help a local family with medical expenses, and attended a wedding where everyone danced to the “Indian Rock‘N’Roll” written by an Alaskan Native from Huslia (look the song up on YouTube!).
The Galena community is strong and resilient despite facing significant adversity. In 2013, flooding devastated a majority of Galena. Many families lost their homes, and in 2015 they were still rebuilding. It is expensive to fly to Fairbanks for supplies so many residents build and repair houses using local or natural resources. Nothing is wasted in Galena, and people work hard every day to repair their homes and vehicles with the very limited resources they have.
While in Alaska, I worked with Dr. Tamara Huntington. She is the only family doctor serving the six villages in the Galena area, and travels by plane or SnoGo every six months to see patients with complex medical conditions. Dr. Huntington is not only the family doctor, but also the ER doctor, radiologist, psychiatrist, and OBGYN. The need for physicians is overwhelming, and it was a powerful experience for me to work with a doctor that helps these remote communities every day. It was great having the time to talk with the patients, and it was evident how well Dr. Huntington knew each and every one of them. Having a rotation in such a remote setting showed me not only the unique medical needs of the Interior, but also what it means to be a part of a community and how to care for it.
The community health aide plays a unique and critical role in helping rural Alaskan communities. Because of the major shortage of healthcare providers in Alaska, the Indian Health Service created a 15-week long training program to train local Alaskans to become the frontline workers of medicine. The community health aides follow assessment and treatment protocols at the village clinics and will refer out to the higher-level provider if there is a complex medical condition. When I had the opportunity to take a bush plane from Galena to an even smaller village, Huslia (population 200), I discovered the people there aren’t able to see a physician or PA in person for up to six months at a time. When the PA travels to Huslia, it is well-advertised on the radio so residents can see her for special medical concerns. Because of the great work of the community health aides, residents of remote areas can receive the care they need in-between seeing a higher-level provider. Most clinics use telemedicine when the health aides require assistance caring for a patient. Using telemedicine can mean using live video for face-to-face medicine, saving and forwarding pictures, or performing diagnostic tests. As a healthcare provider, this is a very useful tool when deciding which patients cannot be treated locally and need to be flown to the hospital in Fairbanks.
This rotation solidified my desires to become a primary care provider and to work in a community in a rural and underserved area. I am so thankful for this opportunity I was given through NWRPCA, the Alaska AHEC, and ATSU-SOMA. There are many chronic conditions that need care from medical providers, and it was staggering to see the extent of those illnesses in the population. I also learned that a lot of medicine is knowing the community to determine how one can best help the patient population. The remote areas of Alaska have some of the most amazing, down-to-earth, hard-working people, and it was a privilege having my family medicine training there.
If you are interested in hosting a student for a rotation, please contact Theresa Vu at email@example.com
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