My turn: Equity in health care access essential for all Alaskans

Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2010

The phone rang at about 9:30 on a Thursday evening in mid-September.

It was a nurse, calling from Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. Our son Trevor had been throwing up all day in sick bay.

"We'll be bringing Trevor over to the emergency room shortly," the nurse explained. "We're concerned he'll get dehydrated."

Less than three weeks before, Trevor and his twin sister Deirdre had stepped on the afternoon jet in Kotzebue - their windswept, treeless hometown in Northwest Arctic Alaska - to become freshmen at Mount Edgecumbe, nearly a thousand miles across the state.

As we did with their older brother and sister before them, we sent our 14-year-old twins to Mount Edgecumbe to broaden their educational horizons.

The school nurse characterized the transfer as a routine precaution. Indeed, Trevor might even get sprung soon enough to return to school and cross-country running practice the next day.

But a physician at Sitka's Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium soon dashed those hopes.

"We're going to keep Trevor overnight and run a CAT scan in the morning," she said, as we listened on speaker phone.

Our daughter Tiffany, soon be returning to college, flung open her bedroom door as the doctor described Trevor's condition.

"You'll be all right, Trev," we assured our son.

After we hung up, Tiffany started sobbing.

The next morning, we e-mailed Tom Pennington, a former colleague in Kotzebue and now an education professor at University of Alaska Southeast in Sitka. We recounted the doctor's prognosis - Trevor's condition likely wasn't a typical school-related bug.

The following morning, a surgeon called to say the hospital was preparing Trevor, with our permission, to remove his appendix immediately, before it burst.

We cannot describe the frustration that even if we had tried, we could not have traveled to Trevor soon enough.

Meanwhile, the admissions director at Mount Edgecumbe heard about Trevor's plight and rushed to his side, where she would stay before and after surgery, later bringing him books, balloons and a milkshake.

She told us later by phone: "Trevor looked up at the doctor with those beautiful blue eyes just before surgery and asked, 'When am I going to be able to run again?'"

That evening Pennington e-mailed an update: "Just got back from the hospital. Ol' Trev is looking SO MUCH BETTER than earlier today. He's lost that green color and now looks like a pretty healthy guy. He's smiling, talking, and seems pretty darn good."

Tom also sent a photo of Trevor in his hospital bed, taken while talking to us on his cell phone after the surgery.

"Worry not, he's doing well," Tom reassured us. "I'm proud of him. No whining, no complaining, and polite to a fault."

The following week in Kotzebue, we recounted Trevor's ordeal around town.

"It's lucky it happened in Sitka and not Kotzebue," one local resident told us. "He may not have made it otherwise."

Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue can perform neither surgery nor CAT scans.

Even a medevac flight to Anchorage might not have saved our son's life.

We share this story not as a personal saga but because Alaska voters face perhaps their most important U.S. Senate election in history this Nov. 2, after which we will send Joe Miller, Scott McAdams or Lisa Murkowski to Washington to represent us.

The late Sen. Ted Stevens understood Alaskans getting their fair share from Washington to develop basic infrastructure in our young state, including in rural Alaska where a routine medical operation still can make the difference between life and death.

Some Alaskans might be wondering why rural Alaskans feel "entitled" to improved services. Let us remind our urban Alaska friends, who just received their Permanent Fund Dividend, that rural Alaska has been creating wealth and bankrolling Alaska's wants and needs, rural and urban, for decades. Rural Alaska generously shares its resource wealth - from Prudhoe Bay to the Red Dog Mine to tourism, commercial fishing and more - with urban Alaska and the nation.

Let's choose the right senator to send back to Washington who will make sure our children, elders, and others throughout Alaska can depend, for example, on reasonably equal access to health care.

• Andrews and Creed are professors at Chukchi College, the Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska. Their latest book, "Purely Alaska: Authentic Voices from the Far North," was recently published by Epicenter Press.

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