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Nome's new hospital boosts health care access in rural Alaska

Jill Burke
Courtesy John Coyne

The Bering Sea city of Nome, one of the United States’ westernmost communities, rich in cultural tradition and a beckoning mistress to modern-day gold miners, has long been a regional hub of western Alaska. With the opening this week of a state-of-the-art hospital, residents of the region gain more heath-care options than ever. The four-year project came with a $168 million price tag, much of which was paid for through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The 20 villages that make up this part of Alaska, clustered around Norton Sound and the Bering Strait – the narrow waterway that separates the United States from Russia – have in a century endured pandemic flus, diphtheria, and waves of fortune-seeking outsiders. Due to its isolation, the region of nearly 10,000 people, most of whom are Alaska Natives, have always had to travel far for health care. Roads don’t connect communities in this part of the nation. Boats and airplanes are the main means of transportation here.

No more.

Three times bigger

At 150,000 square feet, the Norton Sound Regional Hospital is three times bigger than the hospital it replaces. Under one roof, patients will be able to receive surgeries, get prescriptions filled and undergo diagnostic imaging. It has an emergency room, offices for public-health nursing, dental care and laboratory services. The 18-bed hospital has 18 private rooms, including two set up for labor and delivery. It also features a wing for elderly nursing care, with an additional 18 private rooms, including a salon and spa.

Keeping patients and elders close to home goes to the heart of what the Nome facility offers. It keeps families tight during times of strife and elders more connected to the homes and people they've known for a lifetime.

 “This is a huge benefit for the nearly 10,000 residents who live in the Bering Straits region,” Angie Gorn, interim president and CEO of the Norton Sound Health Corp., the tribal-owned nonprofit that owns and operates the hospital, said in a prepared release. “This is a state-of-the-art facility that people of the region will make their health care provider of choice. It also helps them avoid the high cost of having to fly to Anchorage.”

The design and technology of the new facility give patients more of a choice whether to stay in Nome or to go to Anchorage for treatment. Nome can now offer a 64-slice CT machine, improved dental technology and enhanced x-ray capability. 

The new hospital, available to anyone, replaces a 50-year old facility, which will become a substance-abuse center.

'Fall Migration' sculpture 

Grand opening ceremonies this week included the unveiling of art commissioned for the project, including a large sculpture from metal artist John Coyne, brother of Alaska Dispatch co-founder Amanda Coyne.

The piece, entitled “Fall Migration,” features six caribou running atop a wave-like ribbon adorned with images evocative of the region and its culture: harpoon pieces, a paddle, walrus and seal skulls, a bowhead whale, drying fish, snow goggles, a dog sled, and a gold pan. The inspiration for most of the emblems came from excavation sites, Coyne said on Friday.

The unifying concept is a wave – inspired by the Bering Sea that’s visible through huge windows on hospital's first floor – and given deeper meaning through the idea of migration: the movement of Native people in the area before contact, the migration of Outsiders to the region, the migration of the caribou that move through the rolling hills nearby.

Established in 1970, the Norton Sound Health Care Corporation was an early national model for a tribal-owned-and-operated hospital. The late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens helped secure funding for the Nome hospital to become "the first in the nation to be dedicated to ownership and management by a Native American group for the benefit of the entire community," according to the Norton Sound Health Corporation's 2009 annual report. Stevens persisted and helped land the funding for the new hospital, too. Ultimately, what made the facility possible was money approved in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who took office in 2008, voted to approve.

Contact reporter Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com