Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

Kicking it

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal

Special to The Village News

You may recall I am going north to Alaska for a month-long visit with my daughter Deborah in September. On this trip, I’ll fly from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and transfer to the Sapphire Princess for a slow cruise to Whittier, Alaska.

If you haven’t been to Whittier, Alaska, well, it’s a small port village on the Kenai Peninsula on the other side of the Whittier Glacier. Actually, you drive through Maynard Mountain to get to the other side of the Passage Canal.

Whittier, Alaska, is one of the most visited towns in the state because it sits at the head of the Prince William Sound. As a busy port village, big ships like the Sapphire can slip in because of the 60-foot-deep canal. On the other hand, the only way in and out for passengers is through the Anton Anderson tunnel, which is the longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America.

It was the first time I have ever cruised on my own. I know. The Sapphire stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay National Park, Preserve and College Fjord up the Alaskan waterway. Once docked in Whittier, Alaska, I’ll then take the ship’s shuttle with everyone else to the Anchorage airport. I’ll grab my rental car and scoot over to AT&T to get my phone service set up, then stay overnight at a nearby hotel, finally meeting up with Deborah at the airport.

She’ll be flying in from Togiak, Alaska, via Dillingham, Alaska. The Togiak community is nestled along the river by the same name. She works there as a physician’s assistant in their clinic.

Deborah has practiced medicine all over the state and now has enough years to qualify as an ‘itinerant provider’. In other words, she could go anywhere to work all over the state. That pool of medical providers travel to different clinics across the state providing temporary relief for the village clinicians. Instead of joining the pool, for now, she is working under a contract in the village of Togiak.

Recently, I had a long chat with her and Matt. In the previous column I mentioned that Matt felled trees to build a cabin; well, it happens to be near the very moose camp he’ll be at. The hunters are from the lower 48 for the most part and will sleep in tents near a river bed while Matt and the owner of the camp will bunk in his cabin in the woods. They are the only ones allowed according to Matt. Wouldn’t ya know, these hunters pay as much as $30,000 each just for the chance to sleep outside, stalk wild things and pee in the woods. Boys! They do the darndest stuff.

Deborah’s two-year contract works like this: She is on duty around the clock, 24/7, for 21 days in a row, followed by 14 days off. Her employer flies her both ways with an overnight stay in Dillingham, Alaska. Even though she has only been under this contract since May, as a courtesy, her manager has allowed Deborah to adjust her clinic schedule so she can return home to care for Matt’s 16 sled dogs while he is guiding hunters in the wild. Crazy, that someone would be allowed to leave their position for a month to feed dogs. Only in Alaska by golly.

To me, Deborah is Alaska’s best medicine woman. Her village experiences are beyond amazing. For instance, she once helped a very young stressed-out new mother by providing her with an unprecedented opportunity for a night off. She did this by taking the newborn baby home with her overnight. The rested mother showed up early the next morning happy to reclaim her baby girl.

Most of the time practicing medicine in Alaska is not pretty. Often, she has to hunker down to help patients under some very rugged and primitive conditions. For instance, she has inserted chest tubes and administered life-saving injections for drug-overdoses.

She has managed multiple death certificates after suicides, mended broken bones and stabilized patients before air lifting them out for advanced medical treatments, and on top of that, she has delivered eight babies. A camera crew should follow her. It would make stimulating footage and provide an escape from the “Return of the Kardashians.”

Even though I have visited Deborah multiple times over these 10 years, I only once had to accompany her to a suicide in the predawn. Just the same, she made me sit in the ambulance while she attended the family and waited for the troopers. She forewarned me that seeing the young man might trigger nightmares. Well, I believed her and waited in the ambulance.

Just the same, it will be the first time in my long life I have ever lived off-grid. I mean, how tough will it be to function without the internet? My computer? My cellphone? What about my reader? What about my heart monitor transponder? OMG! It’s 1955.

Naturally, she and Matt tell me not to worry. The power comes from solar panels and is stored in a huge bank of batteries. But. You know what I’m thinking? There isn’t a lot of sunshine up there this time of year. Daylight, yes. Sunshine not so much.

Besides all of my other concerns, it’s cold in September up there. Even though Deborah has “my dawg” – also known as my mink coat – well, it made no sense to keep it in cold storage when, funnily, the coat is thriving in the damp cold. Primarily, she wears it as a house coat in the early mornings before the fire warms up downstairs.

Did I mention the nearest town to her home is Willow, Alaska? Which also happens to be the starting point for the annual Iditarod sled-dog race. Well, we are about 45 minutes from there which is the closest outpost to the last known Walmart.

Finally, I am hoping to see the Aurora Borealis. Although, I am told, it usually appears in colder, blacker skies. Still, I can hope.

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be reached at [email protected].


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