Meet Dr. Elizabeth Roll

Story by – Donna Bach, YKHC Public Relations

January 8, 2013 - 5 minutes read
Dr. Roll consulting in one of YKHC’s outpatient clinics. Photo by Allison McIntyre.

YKHC’s Outpatient Clinic Service Chief and Subregional Clinic Unit Director grew up in the small town of Capron, Illinois, (population 300), one of three sisters.

Dr. Roll attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, in what she called “the soybean capital of the world.” After obtaining her bachelor of science degree, she attended the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and received her medical doctorate in 1996.

Dr. Roll became intrigued by Alaska watching the popular 90’s TV show Northern Exposure. During her final year as a medical student, she applied to the Indian Health Service, incessantly calling their 800 number for a rotation assignment. A month before she was to take off for Dillingham, they changed her assignment to Bethel.

That first 6-week visit was a much more real exposure to the North. JR and Mary Krevans were her hosts that year, 1995, and her True North experiences included getting run over by JR’s sled dog team (no injuries); a trip to Kasigluk by plane, boat and snow machine; medevacs by bush plane and Alaska Air combi-jet, and using her K-300 hat to keep an IV bag from freezing.

“It was a wonderful experience. I was here for 6 weeks, and had never been out of the Lower 48. People I had asked about Bethel [said] ‘there was nothing in Bethel.’” In fact, “it was quite the opposite, and it was very exciting to help with care.” It amazed her at the time that it was such a challenge to bring supplies and materials across the expanse of the region, but seemingly normal to everyone else.

It took two more temporary assignments before she settled in Bethel for good. “At the encouragement of the Krevans family, as well as that of colleague Dr. K. Jane McClure, I settled here in 1999 permanently and proudly call Bethel home.” In total, Dr. Roll has lived in Bethel for almost 18 years.

Her husband Eric Whitney, whom she met in Duluth, Minn. in 1998, runs a small construction business and is a certified energy rating auditor. He is something of a pioneer with snow sports and kite skiing. They have two daughters, Greta, 10, and Elenor, 8.

The Work She Does

In charge of YKHC’s outpatient clinics, Dr. Roll supervises about 30 providers and oversees operations at the Kusko, Delta and Yukon clinics. She also sees patients, of course. “One of the things that I do when I’m in clinic is focus on women’s health care [as a] lactation consultant.” She promotes breastfeeding and breastfeeding education, and encourages moving toward being an even more breast-feeding friendly hospital. This would include YKHC weaning itself off of receiving free formula, and to work more intensely with new-mother groups once babies are born.

Dr. Roll has seen improvements in care in recent years. “Our retention is up. Keeping qualified physicians on staff is very meaningful to me, and helpful to the overall team of providers at the hospital. Newcomers, who may not know how to provide medicine very well in northern climates, may not have any idea how sick people can get here and it really takes people with institutional memory to help teach this new generation of providers.”

While Dr. Roll finds the work challenging and rewarding, there is more to why she and her family have made Bethel home. “There is so much love and concern about the family—the commitment to family the people have here.” There is also the opportunity for community involvement. YKHC’s providers “have a chance to visit the village schools, they get invited to community events and potlucks. There is a lot of hidden reward in this…and it all stems from the beauty of the Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabascan people of the region.”