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Doctors, dentists flying into western Alaska villages to help

Alaska Dispatch
Aaron Jansen illustration

Hundreds of doctors, optometrists, dentists and veterinarians will fan out across 16 villages in western Alaska beginning April 9 in a joint military and medical readiness exercise called Operation Arctic Care.

This will be the 18th year of the program coordinated by the Norton Sound Health Corporation. 

“The medical care provided by the doctors and nurses is usually unavailable in the villages,” Pattie Lillie of the Norton Sound Health Corporation said in a press release.  “Health aides and mid-level providers see patients in the village and treat to the degree they can, and anything beyond their scope is referred to Nome or Anchorage.  Having a doctor on site for even four or five days can make a difference.”

Some 250 government and military medical professionals will fan out from Nome to smaller villages. Most are only accessible by air, so the Alaska National Guard will use an array of aircraft to ferry the medical workers and supplies in and out. Among them:  UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters; C-23 Sherpas, a small military transport plane; C-17 Globemasters, a four-engine military transport plane able to carry large equipment; and C-130 Hercules, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft.

“The military gets an opportunity to conduct deployment training in a non-threatening environment,” Lt. Col. Sharolyn Lange, task force medical commander, said in a press release. “And we have the opportunity to assist underserved citizens living in rural Alaska.”

Two years ago, Col. Cory Strobel, a pediatric gastroenterologist and member of Tennessee Air National Guard, was among the doctors serving in Operation Arctic Care. 

“We found a lot of disease and colon polyps while visiting Kotzebue,” Strobel told Tech. Sgt. Melissa Chatham, writing for the Air Force website.  “We have removed polyps and sent them to pathology for testing and have found that there are numerous cases of colon cancer in this area. 

“This is a great experience.  I hope Operation Arctic Care will encourage others to assist in humanitarian missions.”

Among the patients was 17-year-old Matthew Rae, a student at Maniilaq High in Kotzebue and a three-time regional wrestling champion.  “I’m so glad the military is here for medical help.  I would have had to wait until summertime to get a physical if Arctic Care wasn’t here.”