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By Rebecca Gourley

Health care team did 3,000-mile commute


Rebecca Gourley

LONG-DISTANCE COMMUTERS: Rick and Dawn Sexton now work at the Goldendale Family Practice Clinic, fresh off a stint in Alaska.

Imagine commuting to work via a 3,000-mile flight.

That is what two local health professionals did when they moved to Goldendale.

Physician Assistants Rick and Dawn Sexton moved to Goldendale in 2005, and 11 days later they started work in Alaska.

The island of Shemya is eight square miles and has a barren landscape with no trees. It serves as the United States Air Force Cobra Dane radar base, as part of the Eareckson Air Station. Its geographically close proximity to Russia allows the collection of data on Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles.

The Sextons took care of the workers and military that operated the radar.

“We would work 28 days on, and then we’d have 28 days off,” said Dawn.

They managed every part of the health care profession while they worked on Shemya, the second most western island of the Aleutian chain.

“We drove the ambulance, we answered the phone, we did the pharmacy, we did the lab, we did X-ray, we did everything,” said Dawn.

Their adventures did not stop with the clinical part of the job. They also served as veterinarians when they performed necropsies on two beached whales to find out how they died. The cause was old age for one sperm whale, estimated to be 45 years old.

Other wildlife on the island included a population of Russian Blue Foxes that Dawn says were brought to the island by Russians in the 1800s for fur and were left there.

“They are so inbred,” said Dawn. “They’re really mangy looking and they kind of walk with this weird sort of half-hop gait that’s kind of sideways.” Their physical deformities were not the only thing that was surprising. Dawn says that the first time she heard one of them bark, she looked up to find a seagull, but was shocked to see that the odd sound came from a fox at her feet. “It was very strange,” she commented. “But it’s what they heard all the time.” Seagulls are the common bird that inhabit the island.

One of the audacious foxes even snuck onto a garbage barge headed for Seattle, Dawn explained. When they opened it, there was the fox, which they caught and took the Woodland Park Zoo. Dawn says that the zoo tried to introduce a female Arctic fox to him, but had no luck. Just recently, the fox had to be euthanized because of old age.

Despite the strange wildlife experiences, Dawn and Rick say that they loved what they did on Shemya.

“It was such an adventure!” said Dawn.

She described some experiences that made the job seem more like a vacation or going to camp, than work.

“We would have 80 to 100 mile-per-hour winds where we couldn’t even go outside,” she said. “And the temperature would vary between 20 degrees to 56 degrees. On that day [when it was 56 degrees], it was summer and it was daylight, and they called on the radio and said ‘This is a sunny beautiful day, we don’t get that many, everybody close your shops and go outside.’ So we would go outside and fish off the dock until 1 a.m., because it was still daylight.”

As many know, Alaska has long summer days and long winter nights. “Sometimes during the winter it would be dark probably until 11 in the morning and then start getting dark again about 3:30 p.m.,” explained Dawn. “And just the opposite during the summer.”

Both Dawn and Rick believe that their experience on Shemya helped ready them for their current jobs in Goldendale. “I think it was a good preparation for [Goldendale],” added Dawn.

There were about 180 residents on the island, so the scale was smaller than Goldendale, but the atmosphere was the same. “I loved knowing everyone,” said Dawn.

After five and a half years working on and off in Alaska, they decided it was enough and looked for work in Goldendale. Rick was hired in September of 2010 at Klickitat Valley Health, working in the Emergency Room, and then later started work at the Family Practice Clinic two days a week. Dawn started in late 2011 at the Family Practice Clinic doing primarily women’s health.

Contributed, Rick and Dawn Sexton.

The two stand next to a sign for a McDonalds 1,500 miles away.

Dawn’s favorite thing about Shemya was being able to work with her husband. “Reconnecting with each other, that was great,” she says.

However, they said they had some downsides to the experience. “Knowing that if somebody got sick or injured that it would take us 16 hours, best case scenario, to get them to secondary care,” Dawn explained that it took Life Flight about eight hours to get to Shemya from Anchorage, Alaska. “It only happened once where we couldn’t get someone to the care they needed in time,” she added. “We were so lucky.”

Dawn and Rick have no plans to leave Goldendale. “We don’t have any plans to move ever again,” said Dawn. “We love our place. I think we always saw ourselves in a rural environment where we are part of the community.”


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