While the majority of NSHC’s 500 employees are based in Nome, many staff members regularly travel to villages to treat patients. Fifteen villages, ranging in size from 150 to 750 residents, are scattered along the Bering Sea coast and on islands of the region.
Norton Sound Health Corporation services 15 villages in the region, in which Village Health Services manages clinic operations. The majority of staff in the department are community Health Aide practitioners. These front-line primary health care providers are a critical link between doctors in Nome and patients in villages. Seven villages of our region have a full-time physician assistant or nurse practitioner in the communities of Brevig Mission, Savoonga, Gambell, Shishmaref, Elim, Saint Michael, and Unalakleet.
Community Health Aides/Practitioners are local people who are trained to become often the only healthcare provider in their community. Not only are they seeing patients during normal clinic hours, but must also provide on-call service after hours for urgent and emergent patient care.
Being a Community Health Aide/Practitioner is a demanding position with the health care of the community being their responsibility 24 hours a day. It’s important that they are supported by everyone, including their family, their community members, village leadership, and corporate leadership.
During the 1930s, some residents moved to Savoonga to establish a permanent settlement there. The city was incorporated in 1963. When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed in 1971, Gambell and Savoonga decided not to participate and instead opted for title to the 1.136 million acres of land in the former St. Lawrence Island Reserve. The island is jointly owned by Savoonga and Gambell.
St. Lawrence residents, who either live in Gambell or Savoonga on the northern coast, are 95.5 percent Alaska Native or part Alaska Native. The isolation of the island has helped maintain their traditional St. Lawrence Yup’ik culture, their language and a subsistence lifestyle based on marine mammals. Most residents are bilingual, with Siberian Yup’ik still the first language. The economy is largely based on subsistence harvests from the sea including seal, walrus, fish and bowhead and gray whales. Walrus-hide boats are still used to hunt.