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Modern medical care arrives in Alaska's Far North

Of all the people who enthusiastically celebrated the ceremonial opening of Barrow’s new Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital last week, perhaps the most excited were the staff, who waited patiently through hours of speeches and thank you's to get a chance to show dignitaries and visitors around the nation’s northernmost medical facility.

Nicole Thomason, case manager for the hospital’s Specialty Clinic where residents can receive everything from a hearing test to a colonoscopy eagerly told guests about the improvements in care she would be able to provide at the hugely expanded facility.

Thomason coordinates more than a dozen services -- many preventative -- for some 3,000 patients throughout the year at the current facility, where she has one exam room. In the new hospital, she will have four rooms and state-of-the-art equipment to provide care to North Slope residents without their having to travel far from home.

“I’m really excited,” Thomason said, adding that residents in the area benefit greatly from screenings that can catch dangerous cancers and other ailments early. “This will keep us from having to send people to Anchorage.”

Down the sparkling new hall, the story was similar in the hospital’s new pharmacy, lab and radiology departments. Pharmacists will have space to provide patients privacy, while the North Slope’s only blood bank will have room to serve its purpose more effectively.

A new CT scan machine will allow doctors to instantly see images that could be lifesaving to North Slope residents. Images from the new machine and others in the hospital are set up to transmit to doctors in Anchorage and beyond for further analysis, the technicians said. With medevac transport to Anchorage costing tens of thousands of dollars, this improved technology could save millions as well. 

And while the hospital looks like it would fit in just about anywhere, with modern décor and all the bells and whistles one would expect in an urban setting, it has plenty that speaks to its Native roots. The CT scan machine, for example, will give instructions to elders in their native tongue. Bright paint selected by locals working with designers reflect the Native love of color that reflects its natural environment. Natural elements and Native art are seen throughout the facility. As those who had a hand in the new hospital reflected on the effort that went into its creation Thursday, the pride was evident.

“We waited for this day for a long time,” said Bernice Kaigelak, chair of the Arctic Slope Native Association Board of Directors.

Area outgrew former hospital long ago

The old hospital, located on the other side of town, is a series of cobbled together buildings that speaks its age at every corner. Space is cramped, whether you are a health care provider or a patient. Built in 1963, the former Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital squeezes services for residents of the entire North Slope Borough, including workers from Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields, into a slim 25,000 square feet. Leaders said they realized decades ago that the community had outgrown its hospital. But the effort to raise funds for the new facility took more time than anyone expected.

Marie Carroll, Arctic Slope Native Association president and CEO, said a 1992 study put the hospital on the national priority list, but reams of paperwork followed.

Carroll said some failed to understand why a region which profited so from the taxes from Prudhoe Bay had such an antiquated facility for a hospital.

“Many visitors never understood how dilapidated our hospital was,” Carroll said. “We were mistaken many times for being a rich organization.”

With only six exam rooms, and limited space virtually everywhere, the hospital’s ability to meet the health care needs of its residents was restricted.

“We didn’t have very many services, considering that the North Slope is the hub of the oil industry,” Carroll said.

Funding for the $160 million hospital came from a partnership with the association, the Indian Health Services and the Denali Commission. Some 50 new jobs have already been created in 2013, and 30 more are expected to become available when the hospital gets up and running. The official opening date is scheduled for Sept. 21.

The new facility includes many expanded departments in its more than 100,000 square feet of space -- four times larger than the old hospital -- as well as the area’s first physical therapy and optometry departments. The dental clinic, which houses state of the art equipment, not to mention some of the best views in Barrow, has expanded three times from its old facility. Eight single patient rooms and 14 outpatient rooms make service to Atqasuk, Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Point Hope, Point Lay and Barrow more feasible than before, as do two labor and delivery rooms. The inpatient rooms are much larger than in the old hospital, which will likely be helpful, one nurse noted, when large families come to join their loved one to pray and sing for their health, a common occurrence, she said.

New technology and equipment throughout the facility will improve care on all levels. The hospital is planning to create what it calls a continuum of care for patients where they have health care teams that serve them instead of a luck-of-the-draw situation where whichever health care providers are on duty when patients come in are who they see. Under the new plan, residents can schedule to seen by doctors and nurses who have seen them before, reducing the need to explain symptoms and medical conditions over and over again and making service more personal.

Link between Native values and new facility

North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower was more than a little excited to see the doors open on the new hospital. But while the facility may be new, it also honors the heritage of those who came before it, she said. The Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital has adopted a holistic approach to healing, Brower pointed out, weaving knowledge of traditional healers into its practice.

“This recognition of our traditional healers is very important to the Native people,” she said. “When western and traditional knowledge are integrated, it is a win-win for everyone.”

That link is also woven into the facility through its name, which recognizes the legacy of Simmonds, who was born in Barrow in 1922. Simmonds trained to be a pastor, and in 1961 was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. He served as pastor for the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church for years before accepting a pastorship in Wainwright in the early ’70s. He also worked with recovering alcoholics at a new counseling center for the North Slope Borough.

 “The late Samuel Simmonds’ legacy of compassionate care is woven into our vision for the next 50 years of dedicated service to the Arctic Slope,” a dedication to the community legend read.

Simmonds was not only a tireless advocate for the welfare of his people, the community noted, but also a master carver.

Brower presented the new hospital with a collection of carvings by Simmonds at the facility’s dedication, honoring the legacy of the minister and healer.

“His philosophy was based on love and compassion for one and other,” Brower said.

Housing, staffing still provide challenges for hospital, community

While everyone attending last week’s event was excited to see the dream come to completion, some challenges lay ahead for the facility. The new hospital is provided a budget to staff some more than 280 health care professionals, but finding those new employees is easier said than done. The current hospital and health care administration offices employ 162 people. While the new facility provides a huge opportunity for locals interested in pursuing a health care career, a significant number of the new employees will have to be recruited. And housed. And that’s a big problem in Barrow.

“We are going to need more housing,” Carroll noted, saying that the hospital already rents dozens of houses in the community for its staff and needs dozens more. “We would love to see our community grow.”

But while challenges lay ahead for the community and the new hospital as it moves forward, the community, as well as dignitaries who traveled to Barrow to applaud the facility, were undoubtedly pleased with the step forward it represents.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who along with many of Alaska’s state and federal leaders, including the late Sen. Ted Stevens, worked to secure funding for the project, noted that Inupiat values encouraged thinking in terms of future generations when decisions are made. The hospital does that, she said, looking forward many generations.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for the birth of this hospital,” she said. “It has come forth in magnificent form, but it sure took a heck of a long time to get here.” 

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.