David Head worked as a family doctor in Northwest Alaska for more than three decades. Now his sons are following in his footsteps.
Head grew up in Driggs, a small town in Idaho, fishing, hunting and enjoying the outdoors. His father Kitchener Head was a physician and the only doctor in about a 26-mile radius — which inspired Head’s future career choice.
“My father was a family medicine doctor who did everything in a small community in Idaho,” he said. “I admired what he was able to do.”
It was 1974 when Head came to Alaska for the first time: he and his friend drove the Alaska Highway to Valdez and took a ferry to Cordova to work in fishing.
“I became so enamored with Alaska,” he said. “Once it gets into your system, it’s hard to leave.”
For the next several years as Head was in pre-medical and medical school in Utah and Arizona, he would come back to Alaska every summer to work in fish canneries and on the pipeline. When it was time for his clinical rotation, he went to Bethel, and when he started searching for rural practice positions, he ended up in Nome.
“That was the beginning of a long, long story,” he said.
Head had a family practice in Nome’s Norton Sound Regional Hospital for 32 years. He explained that he originally went into family medicine because back when he was a medical student he realized he liked all aspects of medicine.
As a family doctor in remote Alaska, he explained, “You do everything, all the way from delivering babies to taking care of people in the nursing home.”
Nome, Head said, was similar to his hometown: a small tight-knit community where people enjoyed fishing and family life. Head found like-minded people who helped him figure out the hunting grounds. As an avid basketball player, he was also able to relate to the community through sports, participating in the city league.
“You get to know people very well when you’re playing basketball with them,” he said. “The people welcomed us wholeheartedly and we felt at home real soon. … We love the area, we love the people. It seemed like it was a good place to raise a family.”
Together with his wife Lori Head, they raised five children in Nome. David Head said it was a perfect place to build a family because his children could run free safely and do what they wanted – ride four-wheelers, fish and hunt.
“They had a lot of freedom and everybody knew everybody,” he said.
Head’s children also played basketball, did wrestling and other kinds of sports, which took them all over Alaska – including one of the main Nome’s rivals in high school sports, Kotzebue. Head and his wife came along to support their children during games and matches.
So when in 2018, Head retired from the hospital in Nome and was approached with an offer to help at the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue, he felt like he already knew the town relatively well.
Head agreed to the temporary position. He worked as a chief of staff of Maniilaq for about three years and then has been helping the Maniilaq area in an administrative capacity. Instead of spending just a few months during the transition in Maniilaq, he ended up working there for about five years.
“Kotzebue has been very welcoming,” he said. “I was overwhelmed with how nice the people were and how well I was treated and how I loved working in the hospital system.”
Head’s plan is to retire soon, this time – to spend time with his father, children and 13 grandchildren.
Meanwhile, some of his five children are continuing his legacy in the medical field. Head’s daughter Sonja Callahan is a registered nurse in Anchorage, and one of his sons is doing residency in South Carolina and is going into radiology. His youngest son is a third-year medical student at the University of Washington, and his oldest son, Ben Head, now sees patients in Cordova, where he is the medical director for Ilanka Community Health Center.
Head said his children tried to leave Alaska for school but most of them seem to come back home.
“Those that have tried to leave realize that they have to come back because they can’t find the same feeling or the same relationships and the same atmosphere as they love for Alaska,” he said. “Alaska has got its hold on our whole family for now and into the future.”