Village Travel in Alaska
My Summercise internship is based out of the Diabetes Prevention Department at Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC). NSHC is the only health care provider in Nome, Alaska, and it carries no anesthesia! High risk pregnancies, surgeries and patients requiring more intensive care are medevaced to a better-equipped hospital in Anchorage. NSHC also serves as the main hub for the surrounding 15 villages, each of which has a small clinic and at least one trained health aide. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel out to two villages for Summercise ad clinical work.
The first village I travelled to was Teller, located 71 miles west of Nome on the gravel Nome-Teller Highway. I had kept low expectations based on what my dad told me of his short visit to Teller 20 years ago. Apparently, my dad’s boss let him borrow the truck for the day to drive out to visit the village. According to him, the drive lasted for hours or possibly even days, with constant bumps and potholes. When they arrived in Teller, they found nothing but a small grocery store, where my dad bought an ice cream sandwich before heading back to Nome within 20 minutes of arriving.
Based on my experience, I can tell you that not much has changed in Teller! The road did indeed have copious amounts of potholes and bumps, however, we were lucky enough to spot two moose alongside the road! After an hour and a half drive (I am starting to see some of the exaggeration in my dad’s stories) we arrived in Teller. The other interns and myself took a quick walk around the tiny town in order to find the grocery store. You can bet your bottom dollar that I searched every freezer in there for an ice cream sandwich to see if they lived up to their reputation!
After leaving the grocery store, we headed back to the abandoned building where we decided to host Summercise for the Teller kids. The interns and I entertained 11 kids, while the RD and tobacco cessation coach had appointments with their parents and other village residents. The kids were so excited to see us that they immediately began holding our hands, jumping on our backs, and hugging our legs as soon as they arrived. With kids ranging from 3 to 13 years old, it was tough to find an activity that everyone would enjoy. We played games including Caribou Caribou, Ice Cream Cones and Volcanoes, and Capture the Flag, before retreating to the building for a snack.
We hauled enough pineapple, grapes, melon and bananas from Nome to feed approximately 30 kids. Since these kids rarely seen fresh produce, the 11 of them downed our entire stock within minutes! We also brought a full water jug, as the village of Teller is still operating without any running water. The Teller kids were certainly different than the Nome kiddos I have been used to working with the last few weeks. Whether it is due to their increased freedom in the isolated community or not, the Teller kids were just a bit more aggressive when playing the games. Either way, they were a blast to hang out with for the afternoon and I enjoyed my first look at a Norton Sound village!
My internship has kept me extremely busy through the summer. However, flying to a remote village to do health care and play with kids hardly feels like work. A few weeks later, eight of us (five interns, two registered dietitians and one tobacco cessation coach) boarded a 10-passenger Bering Air plane en route to St. Lawrence Island. This was my first time in a small plane, and I have no idea if the extreme turbulence was caused by the poor weather or if that is normal for such a small plane. Either way, I spent the 40-minute ride over the Bering Sea with my hands clutching the armrests!
Our first stop was in Savoonga, a small village located on the northern coast of the island, 164 miles west of Nome. While Savoonga is hailed as the Walrus Capital of the World, there are quite a few reindeer grazing this part of the island, after a herd was brought over in 1916. We waved goodbye to two of the interns, a dietitian and tobacco cessation coach Wanda. This was quite the special trip for Wanda, a Savoonga native. She came along to help translate the information from the dietitian into Alaskan Yupik for the patients to better understand!
The remaining four of us (three interns + a dietitian) braced for another 20-minute ride north to Gambell. Gambell sits on the northwest cape of St. Lawrence Island, 200 miles southwest of Nome. The city is just 36 miles from the Chukotsk Peninsula in Siberia! From my plane seat, I could see humongous whale bones scattered along the shores. Just a few months ago, a crew from Gambell landed the first whale of the season. The 51-foot bowhead whale was butchered and shared with the people of Savoonga. Gail force winds and flurries pelted us as we climbed out of the plane. The weather difference between Savoonga and Gambell was uncanny. Luckily, a few kind strangers let us hop on the back of their four-wheelers and brought us to “the lodge” – the small dormitory reserved for health care workers when they visit the island. Eventually, we managed to trudge to the grocery store so that the dietitian could take a look at what was available. It is incredibly important to know what food is accessible to patients in order to make appropriate recommendations. The store was fairly large, with six aisles of canned, frozen, dried and packaged foods. Unsurprisingly, the only “fresh” produce I found were a few peppers and onions.
The next morning, after sleeping on a four-foot long medical exam table, we all headed off to the Gambell clinic to perform screenings while the dietitian met with more severe patients. These were the same finger-prick screenings that I did during my counseling rotation a few weeks ago, however, this time there were three interns and a patient packed into a three-foot wide hallway performing them. The working conditions were not ideal, but the experience gave me a new perspective on the preventative health care available to Gambell residents. We met with and educated a total of 12 patients and informed them of their lipid and blood glucose levels.
After explaining the results to the patients, we also offered them tobacco cessation products. One patient told me that she had tried nicotine patches, but they hadn’t worked for her, so I offered her lozenges instead. The patients were all very kind and receptive to the information we were telling them. I even had two patients ask if these were my real eyes! I suppose they don’t see too many people with blue eyes walking around the village!
The weather grew nicer, and as soon as the other interns and I started kicking around a ball, the Gambell kiddos came flocking from all directions! Similar to Teller Summercise, we played several games of kickball, soccer, ice cream cones and volcanoes, and tag on the “quicksand” rocks before heading inside to eat some of the healthy snacks we brought with from Nome. The kids devoured the apples, cantaloupe, grapes, celery and oranges. One of the kids ate the entire orange like an apple–rind and all! Overall, the Gambell kids were very fun and well-behaved!
After visiting these two villages, Nome seems like urban paradise! I am truly grateful, not only to have the opportunity to spend my summer in Nome, but also to be able to travel to remote villages to experience their unique people and culture!