There’s something special about living in rural Alaska, from the subsistence lifestyle to the breathtaking scenery, but this area does present its challenges, receiving basic healthcare services is one of them.
“I have to be honest and day that I could not do my job without them,” said Dr. Barbara Riley about Community Health Aides.
Dr. Riley is a family physician at Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham, the biggest hospital in the Bristol Bay region. She describes Community Health Aides as the eyes and ears for doctors in rural Alaska and without their help, Dr. Riley says her job as a physician in Dillingham would be extremely difficult.
Community Health Aides work at village clinics that are extensions of Kanakanak Hospital. They are vital to the health of Bristol Bay area communities.
“There was a time when many of our villages did not have community health aides and it was difficult to get into the hospital, so many people would just die,” Dr. Riley said.
Life in rural Alaska can be challenging, especially with harsh weather that can make communities inaccessible in case of an emergency. That’s when health aides around the state step in to bridge the gap between sick or injured patients in remote places and doctors in larger communities.
In the Bristol Bay region, health clinics are in 27 villages. Dr. Riley describes these aides as the backbone to basic health care for the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation (BBAHC).
“They can do intravenous lines, they can give IVN antibiotic or intramuscular antibiotic. They can administer oxygen and sometimes they even deliver babies out in the villages,” Dr. Riley said.
With the advancements of technology and the constant communication between the community health aide and the physicians, both parties determine if the patient’s condition is extensive enough to be transported to the Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham.
“We see patients daily, anywhere from common colds, to cuts, to fish hooks, to ATV accidents,” said Maria Paul, Field Coordinator for the Community Health Aide Program with BBAHC.
Paul has been a community health aide for seven years. In addition to weather concerns when transporting patients to Dillingham, she admits there are a number of other challenges.
“Togiak’s light are out, so flights have to leave between sun rise and sun set and if anything happens during the night time, we can’t medevac them without airplane lights,” Paul said.
That’s why Paul and many like her serve as vital members of their community. Health aides perform numerous health care services, from providing immunizations to managing chronic diseases, treating emergencies and saving lives.
“It’s both challenging and rewarding. I love the people of Bristol Bay and I enjoy my job so far,” Paul said.
According to Dr. Riley, this method of is sometimes hard for other doctors in the lower-48 to understand.
“For us out here in rural Alaska, that’s just part of life,” Dr. Riley said. “The community health aides, man they make life good for us.”
It’s these challenges that both Dr. Riley and Paul face that makes living in rural Alaska truly unique.
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