September 1, 2013 Columns

First Person on the Last Page: The Call of the Wild

An SLP braves Alaska's most rugged, remote landscapes to reach clients where they live.

Sandra Mckinnis

"You mean you are getting paid to be here?" one of my fishing partners exclaimed. We'd just returned from a halibut fishing trip and were sitting on the beach in front of my client's cabin. Both of her parents were in the commercial fishing business and I was staying at their fish camp, on Kodiak Island. I had arrived by floatplane two days earlier. The scenery was drop-dead gorgeous. My hosts had hired me to provide speech-language services two hours a day for a week and develop a home program for their daughter, Leslie. The rest of the time I helped pick 4,000 pounds of king salmon from set nets and went berry picking, hiking and fishing. By the end of the week, Leslie had made nice gains and had a home program, and I left knowing I had been able to help.

This was only one of my experiences during the 17 years I spent providing consultant services to children in off-the-road areas of Alaska. And, it was just one of the many times over my 41-year career that I appreciated how lucky I am to be a speech-language pathologist. I've experienced so much providing services in bush Alaska—for example, how to "pick" salmon from a set net, exit a float plane into a skiff in the middle of a bay of choppy water without getting my therapy materials wet, and dodge grizzly bears.

Through my experiences I've learned quite a bit, too. I learned that sleeping with biology class skeletons in the school supply closet (because there were no other "visitor accommodations" in the village) was impossible. I learned that it is possible for a plane to land safely on a gravel runway with cliffs at both ends—as long as the villagers placed the only truck in town at the opposite end of the runway to stop the plane from falling off the cliff.

But more important, I learned to love the people and to appreciate a unique way of life. I learned to slow down, talk less, listen more and value the importance of a community. It felt good to be appreciated as a person who was there to help. Villagers told me many times that the fact that I kept coming back was proof I cared about their community. And I did. The parents, teachers and I made sure that children who needed help got whatever services they needed—not just what was available locally. I had to develop training skills to teach aides to carry out programs. Fortunately, I found that people who live in remote areas are accustomed to doing things themselves and are amazingly resourceful. Over the 12 years I spent working for the Iditarod School District, I nearly always saw gains when I came back to reassess children's progress.

I also learned to be careful about prematurely "labeling" children who have a very different language-learning environment than those upon whom our tests are standardized. Often a child from a small village would exhibit a significant speech-language delay as a preschooler, only to catch up quickly once he or she entered school.

As I come close to the end of my career as an SLP, I am thankful to have been in a field that allowed me to have these life-changing experiences. I wish all of you the joy that is gained from serving clients wherever they may be. And, if you ever want an adventure, consider Alaska!

Sandra Mckinnis, has been in private practice in Anchorage, Alaska, for more than 23 years.

cite as: Mckinnis, S. (2013, September 01). First Person on the Last Page: The Call of the Wild. The ASHA Leader.


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