Psychiatrist who commuted to Ketchikan for 34 years retires

In this May 9, 2013 photo, Dr. Wandal Winn, takes a break in his office in Ketchikan, Alaska. After 34 years of working at Ketchikan's Gateway Center for Human Services, including 10 years as medical director, Wandal William Winn is calling it a day. (AP Photo/Ketchikan Daily News, Hall Anderson)

KETCHIKAN — After 34 years of working at Ketchikan’s Gateway Center for Human Services, including 10 years as medical director, Wandal William Winn is calling it a day.


“I’m at a phase of practice where I need to cut back,” said the now semi-retired psychiatrist, who’s spent a few days a month for the past three decades serving Ketchikan’s mental health needs. While Winn resides in Anchorage, he’s been commuting to Ketchikan so long that he said, “When I come here, it almost feels like extended family,” joking that he’d be the distant uncle who occasionally visits.

Winn’s Alaska roots run deep. His parents came to Alaska to homestead in 1952, settling at Point MacKenzie, near Anchorage. Winn attended high school in Anchorage before heading Outside for the majority of his higher education, which included graduating from Brigham Young University — for pre-med and grad school — and the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

Broke and homesick for Alaska, Winn said he signed on to join the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in 1975. In 1978 he began commuting monthly to Ketchikan, to work at the Gateway Center, Alaska’s oldest community mental health center.

When he first started, Ketchikan “was very much a fishing, logging community,” Winn said. He watched the town, and its character, morph through the decades as the pulp mill closed and the town shifted to a primarily tourism-based economy. The town also grew more diverse, he said.

“I see it as a net positive,” Winn said, adding that different cultures present different treatment challenges. Winn spoke about the time he spent in medical school, when his rotation brought him into a New Mexico OB/GYN department. He said he noticed that the way women acted while giving birth varied from culture to culture, adding that their “range of expression” was eye-opening for him. Now?

“I try to meet (my patients) where they’re at,” he said. He said he teaches that same lesson to the students that he teaches at the University of Washington School of Medicine, where he is a clinical instructor.

He tells students that “you need to learn from the people you see,” he said — not just their symptoms, but who they are and where they are coming from.

Cultural barriers aren’t the only hurdle facing mental health providers or the mentally ill, he said.

“There’s still a lot of distortion” about what the mentally ill really are like, Winn said. He said that the public generally considers the mentally ill to be unintelligent or violent. That’s far from his experience.

Winn said his patients could be very intelligent, and the mentally ill are more often the victims of violent crime than they are the perpetrators, outside of a few “narrow exceptions.”

Then there’s a common dilemma between doctor and patient, Winn said. He called it a “perverse paradox of practice:” Patients who need to take prescription medicine often do not want to take it, while patients who do not need medication often seek it out for abuse. Winn said that’s part of the burden of “prescriptive authority” that psychiatrists share with other medical doctors.

Unsurprising for a man whose initials also stand for World Wide Web, Winn is an ardent fan of technology, especially when it comes to improving the level and quality of care he’s able to provide patients. Winn has written and spoken about delivering behavioral health treatment long-distance through the use of phones or computers. He said distance delivery of mental health treatment could be an effective tool for mental health providers in a mostly rural state like Alaska.

Though he’s leaving his Ketchikan practice, Winn said he’d likely be back. Whether he returns as tourist or to provide short-term backup remains to be seen.

“I feel like I am part of the community,” said, adding that he’s seen some of his patients in Ketchikan grow up. He’s attended the occasional funeral, too.

Medicine is something near and dear to the Winn family. Between Winn, his wife and his three children are four medical doctorates.

“We’ve got four Dr. Winns,” he laughed. “And we’re often confused for each other.”

Besides medicine, Winn said he is an avid hiker and a “moderate” shutterbug. His Gateway office held many pictures he’d taken during excursions into the Alaska wilderness. He also speaks both Russian and Mandarin Chinese with some fluency.

Winn is a past president of the Alaska Psychiatric Association and a former information systems committee chairman for the American Psychiatric Association.


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