The clinical director of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation retired on June 30th. The COVID-19 pandemic punctuated her final months in the region. But the doctor’s time in Bristol Bay — and her most memorable moments — extend far beyond the pandemic.
The clinical director of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation retired on June 30th. The COVID-19 pandemic punctuated her final months in the region — filling her weeks with teleconferences as her organization rushed to prepare for the fishing season, an influx of out-of-state workers and all of the related health risks. But the doctor’s time in Bristol Bay — and her most memorable moments — extend far beyond the pandemic.
Dr. Cathy Hyndman first came to Alaska on vacation in 1999. Then, a friend working at the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation invited Hyndman to come back to the region to practice medicine. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“When I got home, all I could think about was coming back to work in Bristol Bay,” she said. “So I spent a year closing down my private practice, which I’d had there for 10 years, and came up with my family.”
In a lot of ways, living in a rural community felt like home to Hyndman. But working in medicine in Alaska was completely different.
In West Virginia, Hyndman worked in private practice and at a hospital. She also worked in hospice in nursing homes. But she had not delivered babies, or worked in an emergency room.
In Bristol Bay, she suddenly found herself taking on all of those roles — and a lot more. At different times during her work in the past two decades, she has been the doctor for eight villages; Port Heiden, Pilot Point, Goodnews Bay, Platinum, Togiak, Twin Hills, Clarks Point, and Naknek, all while working at Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham.
She remembers one night, early on in her career in the region vividly: She was working in the ER, and she got a call that someone had gotten stuck between a boat and a tender.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, doggone. That could be something, that could be not very much of something. Who knows what’s coming in?’ Number one. Plus, they’re out somewhere else and it takes them hours to get to me,” she said. “The person came in and fortunately all that got smashed was a toe. But I was left with this person with an open toe fracture, and I had never set so much as a finger in my practice in West Virginia. And I’m calling up the [Alaska Native Medical Center] docs and talking to them, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a simple thing, you just do this and do that,’ and I’m like, ‘What?!’”
There were more serious challenges, too. Hyndman said that as a doctor in rural Alaska, she needed to learn about civil twilight, runway lengths and weather. She had to judge when to send a plane for a patient — a complicated balance of that person’s need and the safety of the flight and the flight crew.
“I am blessed that I have never experienced something that some of my colleagues have, which is sending out a flight, but it did not go well,” she said. “But I have faced the challenge of — sometimes a flight can’t go out, and sometimes that means the death of a patient that, had they been someplace else, they would have lived or they might have lived. And the loss of a patient is devastating. And the loss when you have the sense that if only circumstances were a little different, the outcome might have been better.”
Hyndman also built a life in Bristol Bay outside of work. She wasn’t just a doctor — she was part of the community, and often those two parts of her life would overlap.
“The blessing of family practice is — here I’ve helped a woman while she’s having this baby. And then, being part of the community, I’m watching these babies crawl and walk, and dance in the ballet and play on the ball teams in junior high, and graduate from high school," she said. "I remember sitting in the gymnasium and thinking, ‘I delivered that one. I delivered that one. I delivered that one,' and just how beautiful these children are.”
Another thing Hyndman didn’t expect was working with animals. But when you’re in a community with no vet, sometimes the human doctor is the only option.
Hyndman says one of her favorite memories was during a work trip to one of the local villages. She was doing a prenatal exam for one of her patients. She examined the patient’s child. Then the woman asked for help with their dog, who had an injured hip.
“I palpate around the dog, and it turns out he’s got a dislocated hip," she said. "Because it was fresh, and because it was a smaller dog, and because the woman had really good control of the dog, and because I was probably really lucky, I was able to reduce the hip, and put that dog back into normal shape, which strikes me as kind of the finest in family practice.”
Hyndman says the final months of preparation during the pandemic were challenging, but reminded her of why she loved her work here.
“We’re working hard, and probably the thing that has kept me here is the wonder of my colleagues at the hospital," she said. "The physicians I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past 20 years have been challenging — challenging intellectually, but so collegial. And we can hone each other’s skills and teach each other things to just bring everybody’s skill level up.”
Hyndman says she will miss Bristol Bay, but she’s ready to move closer to family back east — a plan solidified after her brother died suddenly this winter. Still, she’s keeping her medical license current, both in West Virginia and Alaska, just in case.
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