Optometry brought me to Alaska!

4 people walking dogs down snowy path

Optometry brought me to Alaska!

For the last 2 months, I have been experiencing a new way of life in a remote Alaskan city called Bethel!

IHS Bethel winter quarter interns 2020.

Bethel is a landlocked community located 400 miles away from Anchorage, which is where the closest ophthalmologic support is located. The optometry clinic does not only serve Bethel, but also 52 Yupik Eskimo and Athabascan Indian villages located in a 75,000 square mile region. These villages are geographically isolated, so many of our patients either fly into Bethel for their eye care or travel by snow mobile in the winter. Doctors and student interns from the optometry clinic also travel to some of these villages to provide eye exams throughout the year.

I have had an exceptionally positive experience working at IHS Bethel as an optometry intern. I manage interesting cases daily, ranging from uveitis to eye trauma, and have become much more independent and confident in my clinical decision making. I am also very comfortable and flexible in my ability to provide eye exams for patients of all ages; in one day, I’ve seen a patient as young as 3 years old and as old as 89 years old.

Taking in the K300 dog sled race.

In addition to all of the clinical experiences I have gained, I have also had the opportunity to meet the people of the tight-knit community here. Developing trusting relationships with patients through follow-up exams has been a truly rewarding aspect of this rotation.

The attending doctors I work with are trusting of my abilities, knowledgeable, and very supportive. All of the doctors here were once interns at the clinic, so they are understanding and willing to help with any questions, whether it’s about clinic or about life in Bethel. The director of the optometry clinic invited the interns to her home for Thanksgiving dinner, and we also celebrated the holidays with an office Christmas party. The work environment is extremely positive and I truly enjoy coming to work every day.

K300 dog sled race.

I work and live with four other interns, so I never get lonely and there’s always something to do around Bethel. Some of our favorite places to go outside of clinic are the gym (which has a pool!), a movie theatre, the great restaurants, the library (good WiFi and DVD selection), and the local grocery store.

Most recently, the Kuskokwim 300 race took place. It’s a 300 mile dog sled race that starts and ends in Bethel. The first place winner this year is a Bethel native and also won the Iditarod last year, so it was a surreal experience to see him and his elite team of dogs cross the finish line. Even though my toes and fingers nearly froze in the -10 degree weather, it was a blast being a spectator in such a great event.

IHS Bethel at sunset.

My favorite experience in Alaska so far was traveling to Aniak for a village trip. After packing a lot of optometry equipment and a 40-minute flight on the smallest plane that I’ve ever been in (I got to ride next to the pilot), we arrived in a charming village blanketed in snow and tucked within the mountains. Patients were scheduled between 9am to 9pm the entire week we were there, so each day was very busy. Many of our patients hadn’t received eye exams in 2-3 years, so they were all very happy to see us for routine and diabetic eye exams.

Although I missed having an OCT and fundus camera, I really enjoyed meeting patients in their communities. The Alaskan people are truly some of the friendliest people I’ve met and I felt very welcome. Many of them were very excited to hear that I was from New York, and they would ask if New York City was really like how it is portrayed in the movies. Just as I was surprised when I learned that many of my patients had never left the state of Alaska, my patients were equally surprised to learn that I had never seen a moose or a wolf before! Sharing cultures was a really great bonding experience for me and my patients.

Living in Alaska has really been such a dream for me! I’m lucky to be part of a profession that has allowed me to travel to such beautiful places and to meet such kind people. I can’t believe I only have two more weeks left in Alaska, and only three more months until graduation.

While I am excited about my next and final rotation, I am definitely sad to be closing the chapter on my once-in-a-lifetime experience in Alaska. Quyana (which means “Thank You” in Yupik) to all of my fellow interns, attending doctors, and patients who made Alaska feel like home.