Dr Sy: In Her Own Words

Story by – Dr. Grace Sy

September 12, 2012 - 6 minutes read
Dr. Sy introduces herself at the Tribal Gathering in April.

Greg and I had always wanted to go to Washington State and maybe Alaska. We were fascinated by the “Deadliest Catch” series and “Ice Road Truckers” and got more and more interested. Maybe because we felt that with [our daughter] Kristine being okay and happy where she was at and we were not getting any younger, we should try something new. I happened to get an email flyer about a mission serving Alaskan Natives in remote rural Alaska and for some reason got so drawn to the opportunity.

I was very quickly contacted by the recruiter who hooked me up with Dr. Ellen Hodges [YKHC clinical Chief of Staff]. She was so wonderful on the phone and I felt the warmth and friendliness. Things happened quickly after that and before we knew it, we were on our way to a site visit two months later (September, 2010). The site visit reinforced the impression I got over the phone and so we signed the contract on the plane ride home.

I did not start until June of 2011 because I wanted to make sure that the clinic in Kentucky where I worked would have a doctor to replace me. One of our graduates in the Rural Track Residency program did sign on and I was delighted that the clinic was fully staffed.

My first year with YKHC was not as scary as I thought it would be. The biggest hardship was being away from Greg and Kristine and not knowing how I was going to fare in the winter. As luck would have it, we had a really bad winter, but I loved it! I quickly felt at home with the patients and knew that I made the right decision in coming to Bethel. Most of the staff was very friendly and helpful and made my transition smooth. I do have to admit that what shocked me most about Bethel was the cost of living. I could not believe the price of bottled water or eggs or milk and it took me a while to actually buy more than a day’s worth of groceries. I was very fortunate though to like fish heads and friends and staff supplied me with all the fish heads I would ever want to eat.

I had a lot of “firsts” here in Bethel: First Medevac to Hooper Bay to deliver a 33-week-old; first time to fish and catch salmon and use an ulu to clean the fish by the shore; first time to cross the river on a Kayak and almost get run over by a speeding boat; first time I had to help prepare a body immediately after death because there is no embalming in Bethel; first taste of Aqutak, walrus, mouse aqutak; first speedboat ride from one village (Atmautluak) to another (Kasigluk) to do a palliative care home visit just recently. Am I practicing the true essence of Rural Family Medicine? Absolutely! I think this is what I really had in mind when I signed up for rural practice.

Bethel for me is an irony of sorts. It is the coldest place that I have ever lived in but it is here where I have met people with the warmest hearts. From my first day in Bethel, I was so surprised to be met by a group of Filipinas. There are actually more Filipinas here per square foot than in Kentucky. They fed me and made sure I did not get lonely when Greg had to go back to Kentucky. Then the medical staff, especially Gula [Dr. Gulnara Aliyeva] who made me get into the habit of walking from work until I started getting cold and I just went to the gym for exercise.

My desire to help develop a Palliative Care and End of Life Care Program in our region was strengthened by the pain and helplessness that I felt when I had three deaths out in the village that I found out about through RMT. They all had terminal cancers and were sent home from Anchorage and died shortly after getting home. After consulting with the Health Aides and family members, it was very painful for me to imagine what the family had to go through as they watched their loved one die. I wished I could have found out about them sooner to provide a better intervention for pain and end-of-life management for all involved.

I dream of communities, family members and even our youth, to become peace and comfort providers to loved ones who may be dying. Once we normalize the mystery and fear of the dying process—so communities can honor and serve out the wishes of their elders at the moment they “cross into the woods”, and hopefully, an aspect of healing within families and communities will begin.”

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