In Bethel, a homegrown solution to the state’s nursing shortage

Bethel nursing students
In Bethel, nursing students are helping to fill a dire need for nurses statewide. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Amber Bukowski leans into Melanie McIntyre’s car to give her a flu shot. She’s wearing lavender gloves and has a small bandage ready.

Bukowski counts down and quickly empties the syringe in McIntyre’s arm while a Yukon Kuskokwim Health Center employee observes.

“It’s like a mosquito bite or like a little pinch, that’s all,” McIntyre said, leaning back to let her kids know how it went — they’re next.

This is one of many flu shots Bukowski will give today. She’s working the drive-through clinic on a frosty Saturday morning as part of the clinical hours towards her nursing degree from the Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

She and the three other students in her cohort are part of the long-term solution to the state’s dire need for nurses — specifically, Alaska-trained nurses who intend to work in the state. Alaska is increasingly reliant on out-of-state health care workers — an expensive, short-term fix to a longstanding problem. The nursing program at the Kuskokwim campus isn’t huge, but it is putting four new nurses directly into the Bethel community this year.

Bukowski isn’t new to patient care, though. She got her start in Chevak, where she’s from originally.

“I started out as a health aide in the village clinics and transferred over to be a supervisor and took classes part time and then ended up in the nursing program,” she said.

Previous experience in health care isn’t required to start the degree program. The campus in Bethel offers pre-nursing courses, too.

Bukowski and the other three students in her cohort will take the test to become fully certified nurses after they pass their exams this December.

Bethel nursing students
In Bethel, nursing students are helping to fill a dire need for nurses statewide. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

“It’s a lot of info,” Bukowski said. “A lot of hard work and dedication. But anybody can do it.”

Her classmate Michael Vicente worked as a public health official for the hospital in Bethel until he started the nursing program two years ago.

“I just felt like I’d been called to nursing,” he said. “This is the next step into working closer with the community on a one-on-one basis instead of community wide.”

Twyla Elhardt teaches the nurses-to-be.

“We have a huge shortage of health care workers here,” she said.

Elhardt came to Bethel as a nurse in 2015, then became a nursing instructor a couple of years ago. She said that’s because she has a passion for seeing students from the region learn to take care of its residents.

“I get to see elders cared for by nursing students who are from the same village. And it’s a beautiful thing,” Elhardt said. “I’d love to see that increase.”

She said local nurses break down barriers to care because they understand where their patients are coming from.

“If they want to be here for the long haul, I think you just have an amazing investment, not just in direct patient care, but into the whole health care system,” she said.

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