Mandy Stebbins was waiting in the bitter cold at a dirt airstrip in western Alaska for somebody, anybody to pick her up.
Stebbins, a fifth-generation Flathead native and 1994 Flathead High School valedictorian, was a “bush” dentist who flew into remote, native villages and towns as part of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
Sometimes, that meant waiting with dental equipment in freezing weather for a plane to take her home.
“You feel like a $2 prostitute,” Stebbins said. “Whatever plane lands, you have to get on. You don’t really have the luxury of choice.”
She recently returned to the Flathead Valley and opened a dental office in Whitefish, but her time in tiny Alaskan villages sticks with her.
“The area I worked in was about the size of Oregon,” Stebbins said. “There were 54 villages to cover. Those were some crazy plane rides.”
But it wasn’t always a plane that got her around. Snow machines took her to some of the closer villages. She recalled a time when that backfired on her.
“I was heading to Napakiak and there was a ground blizzard raging,” Stebbins said of her trip to the town seven miles away from her regional hub. “It was 50 below zero when my machine got stuck. So there I am, bundled up, walking like this Pillsbury Doughboy cursing my luck. Some men came out from the town to look for me because I was late.”
Despite the Jack London-esque dangers (the previous dentist had died in a plane crash coming back from a village), Alaska wasn’t a huge stretch for her dental career.
Her grandparents had lived in Alaska in the 1950s and Stebbins thought she could make a mark up there. After graduating from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., she packed her bags for Bethel, Alaska, as an employee of the Indian Health Service.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim delta is one of the largest river deltas in the world, and many of its residents still live a traditional, subsistence lifestyle. With a total population of just over 30,000 people, it is also one of the least densely populated areas in North America.
“The reason I chose that area is that it is still so untouched,” Stebbins said. “In fact, you can see the difference in the western diet in the younger population.”
Among residents 50 or older, hardly any had any sort of sugar while growing up. The high-protein, high-fat, no-carbohydrate diet of the central Alaska Yup’ik people led to some very healthy teeth.
But then Coca-Cola came to town.
“There were cavities on all their teeth,” Stebbins said. “Most children had to sedated for dental procedures by age three.”
Many children had used bottles too long in their infancy, so the vast majority had lost their front teeth.
“I had kids asking me if I could take out their front teeth when they didn’t need it,” Stebbins said. “They wanted to look like their friends.”
While the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta was her stomping grounds for six years, Stebbins also did similar work for the Hmong people in Vietnam and in small mountain villages in Nepal.
After Alaska, she transferred to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana where she met her husband, Dustin. The two have a seven-month old son, John.
While Stebbins is white, her connection to natives in Alaska and Montana along with her marriage to a Blackfeet have earned her a traditional name.
“It means Holy Bird Woman,” she said.
The teeth were better in Browning, Stebbins said, but she didn’t get quite the variety of food there as she did in the small villages along the Yukon.
“I got salmon-ed out. You just get so sick of salmon,” she said. “We went caribou hunting. It tastes similar to beef. We also had ‘Eskimo ice cream,’ which was melted seal fat with blueberries and salmonberries. If you don’t have seal, you make it with Crisco.”
Other delicacies included walrus blubber, seal and small black fish that would spring back to life even after a winter of being frozen solid.
And by freeze solid, Stebbins said things were about as cold as can be imagined in the winter, sometimes getting to minus 60 degrees.
“There were no roads,” she said. “You’d get around on dogsleds and boats. A couple of the villages were actually along the Iditarod Trail.”
Stebbins bought a small fishing boat for use in the temperate summers. Temperatures could climb above 70 degrees on the warmest days.
But when she was working and not getting sick of the abundant salmon haul, she would call villages on the citizens band radio most households had to confirm appointments before flying or sledding in. Work weeks were five to 10 days long and jumped between villages.
“Normally every village had a health clinic,” Stebbins said. “This was just a room with beds. Most didn’t have running water.”
With all the challenges and difficulties she had in six years as one of that region’s only dental health professionals, Stebbins said she wouldn’t trade it for any other experience.
“Mostly that village stuff is great,” she said. “It’s like I’m in National Geographic. There aren’t many feelings like stopping your snowmobile under the stars and just appreciating it all.”
Stebbins’ clinic is located on 401 Baker Avenue in Whitefish. Her clinic number is 862-3503.
Reporter Ryan Murray may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Mandy Stebbins
Photo courtesy of Mandy Stebbins