Health care for all Alaskans is an issue in campaign

October 27, 2010 

By Susan B. Andrews and John CreedKOTZEBUE -- The phone rang at about 9:30 on a Thursday evening in mid-September.

It was a nurse from Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka.

Our son Trevor had been vomiting all day.

"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, 14, and his twin sister Deirdre had stepped on the afternoon jet in Kotzebue-their windswept, treeless hometown in Northwest Arctic Alaska-to become freshman at Mt. Edgecumbe, nearly a thousand miles across the state in Southeast Alaska.

As we did with their two older siblings, we sent our twins to Mt. Edgecumbe to broaden their 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 practice the next day.

But a physician at Sitka's tribal hospital 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 college-age daughter Tiffany flung open her bedroom door as the doctor described Trevor's condition.

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

After we hung up, Tiffany started sobbing.

The next morning, we emailed Tom Pennington, a former colleague in Kotzebue and now a 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. With our permission, the hospital would remove Trevor's 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 Mt. Edgecumbe had rushed to Trevor's 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 Tom Pennington emailed 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, when 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 check, 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.

Susan B. Andrews and John 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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