Huntingburg doctor finds new frontier in Alaskan service

Dr. Ryan Sherer is making house calls in Alaska by snowmobile.

The four-year-old girl raised her eyebrows a bit as Dr. Ryan Sherer asked her questions about her health.

A few facial tics but the little girl remained silent.

He looked at her mom for some help.

She’s answering you, mom pointed out.

Dr. Ryan Sherer

While she never spoke a word to Ryan during the exam, the four-year-old Alaskan native continued to answer him with the slight movements of her face; eyebrows up is yes, a slight nod is no. It was a common way for the Alaskan natives to speak to one another.

“Once I realized that she was answering me, I was able to conduct the whole interview without her saying a word,” Ryan said. “I told my wife that I felt like I had finally arrived.”

The 50-year-old doctor from Huntingburg has been serving in Alaska since last May. Employed through Norton Sound Health Corporation, he is one of about ten doctors they employ to provide medical services to the nearly 11,000 people found in the more than 23,000 square mile Seward Peninsula region that includes the islands in the Bering Strait.

Ryan spends about six weeks in Alaska at a time, returning home for about two weeks to a month before heading out again. He will have finished his first year of a two-year contract in May.

Ryan ended up going to Alaska last year after he and his wife Rachelle had to shut down the family practice they had operated in Huntingburg for 16 years. The closure came about five years after they had decided to separate from their affiliation with St. Mary’s (now St. Vincent’s).

After losing the support the larger organization provided, they found it very difficult to operate the practice privately. Closing down was a devastating moment for them.

After announcing the closure last April, the couple was struggling with the loss financially and emotionally. Ryan was looking for a position with a Veterans Affairs hospital. As a former Naval officer, he has a heart for working with veterans and felt this would be a fulfilling situation. He had a promising lead at a Montana hospital but with the family wanting to stay in Huntingburg, he would be away from them quite a bit.

Then an email that ended up in his junk mailbox caught his attention. “It was from a recruiter and it asked if I would want to work in Alaska for four months over the summer,” Ryan explained. “I just responded back, ‘sure, I’d be interested in working in Alaska for three to four months.'”

The money was really good and Ryan was interested in seeing Alaska. “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska since it is kind of the last frontier,” he explained. “It just seemed like an amazing position.”

After a conversation with the corporation, Ryan learned the position was actually a two-year contract. He and Rachelle discussed the situation and while the contract would help them with recovering from the loss of their business, it meant Ryan would be gone from the family for about six weeks at a time.

“It was a really positive opportunity, but the key is being away from everybody,” he said. “That’s not what I had planned on.”

After some discussion, Ryan decided to take the position and headed out to Nome in the middle of May.

A photo Ryan took of Norton Sound.

A 12-hour flight later, he stepped out into what he described as near desolation. “I’ve been told that some people they hire fly up, get off the plane and see the barrenness of the area and immediately ask to be taken back home,” he said.

For the Kansas native, the lack of trees and vast openness of the Alaskan peninsula was a welcome site. The outdoorsman could appreciate the wildness of the state as well as its natural beauty.

Growing up, Ryan said he could see a grain elevator in another town about 15 miles away from his town. In Alaska, he can see Russia from a village he serves on the St. Lawrence Island called Gambell.

“It’s actually very familiar to me. I was at peace,” Ryan explained comparing Alaska and Kansas. “Up there you have to travel 80 miles to see the closest tree.”

And nature makes its presence known. Once, while he was in Gambell on one of his rounds, he heard a message come across a radio warning the area that polar bears were crossing the frozen sea from Russia heading for the island. “The men were hunting walrus and the bears were attracted to the smell,” Ryan surmised adding it was interesting to hear the warning and others that are regularly broadcast about bears.

While stationed in the Nome-based hospital, he regularly travels to the outlying villages where he stays for four days at a time treating and seeing patients. Travel can be harsh and dangerous — a February 1st post on the hospital’s Facebook page announced a candlelight vigil for a helicopter and medical crew lost in a crash in the Bering Sea — but Ryan accepted the position knowing he would have to deal with the environmental extremes and travel. The job description even dictated that he be okay with traveling on sleds, four-wheelers, snowmobiles, helicopters and other craft designed for working in the tundra, snow and ice.

A photo of the Aurora Borealis Ryan took recently.

The Yupik (pronounced ?-pik) tribe — Alaska is divided into several corporations based on the different tribes — relies on special social constructs and extreme physicality to cope with the harsh environment.

Their diet is mainly fish, reindeer, caribou, whale, walrus and berries that are foraged in the summer. While soft drinks, chips and other packaged foods are available, the extra costs — a 2-liter is $5 to $6 and a bag of chips is $9 — even has Ryan avoiding them.

While avoiding some of the odd delicacies, like oysters scooped from a freshly killed walrus stomach, he has followed a lot of their diet.

With the backdrop of harsh environmental conditions added to the distance between villages and lack of some modern amenities like cellphone service 35 miles outside of most villages, the Alaskans rely on each other and their own physical prowess to survive.

When a hunt is successful, the hunter shares it with everyone including neighboring villages. A 55-foot whale weighing more than 50 tons can feed a lot of people.

Their games and competitions also center on teaching survival skills and performing feats of strength to demonstrate they can survive.

“This also causes them to be more in tune with their health in many aspects,” Ryan admitted.

Outside of accidents, unique genetic issues and infections, the people are pretty healthy.

“Yeah, typically their cholesterol is great,” Ryan laughed. “When going through their family history, the coronary disease which is prevalent here is not nearly as prevalent there.”

Some of the unusual cases he’s dealt with include botulism — a family of about 30 was sickened by botulism from a special dish involving fermented whale tale — and even “beaver fever” — an infection caused by a parasite found in beavers that also occurs around here.

The people are also more introspective. Working with patients that take time to think about questions before blurting out answers has caused Ryan to slow down a bit. He’s forced to take more time with them as they form their thoughtful responses.

The experience in Alaska has been eye-opening and somewhat life-changing for the Huntingburg doctor. When the two years is finished, he’s not sure what is next but with a different perspective, he’s open to anything in his field.

He and Rachelle have four children; Evie is 17, twins Wyatt and Dori are 15 and Ruthie is 13, all in the Southwest School Corporation.

“Being away from them has been hard,” he said. “I know it’s hard on Rachelle and them also.”

While the time away is rough — Ryan relies on Facetime to stay connected with the family — the two weeks he has with them while he is home helps. As a busy doctor who began practicing medicine in 1995, having two weeks to a month off at a time is a blessing.

“I never took time off when I was working before,” he explained. “To have this time off is amazing and being able to invest in them is great.”

Ryan knew he wanted to be a doctor when he was four years old while watching the TV show “Emergency!”. He remembers the episode clearly. The actors portraying the paramedics in the show used a defibrillator to save a patient’s life in a supermarket.

“I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said about his career as a doctor. “But this has revealed a whole new world to me and my family.”

5 Responses to Huntingburg doctor finds new frontier in Alaskan service

  1. Linda Haskell-Roberts February 20, 2019 at 5:14 pm #

    What a wonderful experience for you. Hope you get to see more of the state. It’s beautiful!

  2. Linda Atkins February 23, 2019 at 9:39 am #

    Great experience for you! Sounds fascinating!! I’m sure your family misses you!! But what an amazing journey. Great article! Good luck in the future!! Hopefully it won’t be so far away!! We miss you!!

  3. Teresa February 25, 2019 at 8:47 am #

    Miss you all. You look so happy!!

  4. BARBARA ECKSTEIN February 28, 2019 at 1:35 am #

    GOD BLESS YOU SIR.

  5. Angela Huebner McDonald March 5, 2019 at 7:46 am #

    Amazing story!!