From her home office yurt, Alaska’s chief medical officer navigates ‘uncharted territory’

Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, now works from a repurposed yurt beside her family’s home in Palmer, where she appears with Governor Dunleavy in webcam teleconferences. (Anne Zink)

When Anne Zink was 15, she was hiking in Wyoming with a few other teenagers at the end of an outdoor leadership course, without adults, when a storm moved in. As they retreated toward a ravine, a boy stepped on an unbalanced rock and went tumbling with it down a field of boulders.

The group thought the boy was dead. But when he regained consciousness, he started complaining about his foot, and they pulled off his boot.

A toe came off with it. And another was dangling.

Zink had first-aid training, which included a lesson on amputations, but no practical experience. The group set up a shelter, put the toe in a water bottle and hunkered down in the boulder field for two stormy nights before rescuers arrived.

Her mother, Carol Braun, found out only afterwards, and she said it was the only time she ever suggested that Zink become a doctor.

LISTEN: An extended interview with Anne Zink on our podcast Alaska, Interrupted

“I was just impressed at how she used all of her first aid that they had taught her, her ability to calm people down and see through the problems and figure it out — and did it with quite a bit of equanimity and care,” Braun said. “Ever since she was a little kid, she’s been somebody that could persuade anybody to do anything.”

Zink with her daughters and husband in Bhutan during her recent sabbatical. (Courtesy Anne Zink)

Zink, 42, chose a career in medicine, as an emergency room doctor and director, and has settled in Palmer with her husband and 12- and 15-year-old daughters. And last year, she took a new job as Alaska’s chief medical officer.

Now, through her appearances at Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s nightly briefings, she’s become a trusted voice as she appeals to Alaskans to follow strict social distancing and other public health guidelines adopted by the administration, which have helped keep the state’s COVID-19 numbers among the lowest in the country.

She’s also been widely praised for the same qualities she showed as a teenager in that boulder field: her ability to work with others, project calm under pressure and communicate in a clear and relatable way.

Read all of Alaska Public Media’s coronavirus coverage here.

“We’re doing what she’s asked us to do, because she’s encouraging us — she’s not threatening us,” said Sarah Erkmann Ward, an Anchorage communications consultant who recently published a blog post headlined: “Five reasons Dr. Zink is crushing it as a crisis communicator.”

“She is the right person at the right moment that we never knew existed,” Erkmann said.

After initially participating in the nightly news conferences in-person, Zink spent two weeks in quarantine and now works from a repurposed yurt beside her family’s home, where she appears with Dunleavy by webcam. In a phone interview, she called the attention “a little surreal.”

“I sit by myself at a computer talking to the computer — all sorts of people see it, hear it in a way that I’m not always expecting,” she said.

“It’s been a struggle with each of these decisions, and this is definitely uncharted territory for all of us,” Zink added. “At the end of the day, what matters is how well Alaskans do.”

Patients and policy

Zink grew up in the Denver area, where both her parents were doctors.

Her maternal grandfather, Al Bartlett, was a University of Colorado Boulder physics professor and a nationally recognized speaker on exponential growth and humans’ inability to comprehend it — a lesson not lost on Zink as she navigates the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think about him all the time,” she said. “Particularly in this world of trying to understand exponential growth, and trying to keep our state from getting into a place of exponential growth.”

Bartlett delivered his most famous lecture more than 1,700 times, in 49 states and seven countries, and one segment has more than 5 million views on YouTube. Like Zink, he was known for translating scientific concepts in ways that a broad audience could grasp.

During college, Zink spent summers in Alaska as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. After finishing her medical degree at Stanford University and her residency in Utah, she and her husband moved to Palmer, and Zink started work as an emergency room doctor at Mat-Su Regional hospital — where she was still working weekly shifts until the pandemic took hold.

Zink rides a bicycle next to the Knik Glacier, not far from her home in the Mat-Su. (Courtesy Anne Zink)

Zink said she was initially leery of the emergency room. It seemed to her like a job that allowed doctors to check in and check out, rather than fully engage with their work. But she came to appreciate how democratic it was, with opportunities to treat homeless people, chief executives and children.

The emergency room also gave Zink a firsthand view of the policy failures of Alaska’s social safety net, like its limited treatment options for drug addiction and mental health problems. At one point, she was punched in the face by a disturbed patient, leaving her with a black eye.

“I realized that if I wanted to care about my patients, I had to care about the policies in the hospital,” Zink said in a December episode of the Alaska Landmine podcast.

Zink and a group of her peers worked to reinvigorate Alaska’s chapter of an emergency room doctors advocacy group, the American College of Emergency Physicians. Her work with ACEP took her to lobby at Alaska’s Capitol in Juneau, and to Washington, D.C., where she made an impression on U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“She was this young, articulate, hard-charging woman that you just think, ‘Man, TV shows should revolve around people just like her,’” said Murkowski, who’s friendly with Zink and calls herself a “huge fan.”

The political work appealed to Zink in part, she said, because she could actually see it produce change. Working with the state health department, ACEP developed guidelines for prescribing opioids to emergency room patients, with the aim of using the drugs more carefully.

The group also helped adjust computer systems to better guide the prescription of opioids. And it worked with different hospitals and other providers to launch a system to better coordinate the care of patients with complex medical and mental health problems.

Ask a question, “she’s all facts”

Zink’s advocacy connected her with Jay Butler, who was then Alaska’s chief medical officer. When Butler was named to a top job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he suggested that Zink consider replacing him. She was ultimately offered the job by Adam Crum, the new health and social services commission.

It was not long after Dunleavy had been elected. Zink was in Bhutan with her husband and her 12- and 15-year-old daughters — one of a number of countries where the family lived during a year-long sabbatical.

Dunleavy, in his first months in office, was proposing deep cuts to health care, homeless services and other safety net programs — moves that drew sharp criticism from many providers. Some of Zink’s emergency room peers were surprised she took the job, and thought she would face obstacles in Dunleavy’s administration, said Nathan Peimann, the current president of Alaska’s ACEP chapter.

“There were, on so many levels, so many affronts to so much of what we were taking for granted that we thought there was no way to stem this tide,” he said. “As one voice, the influence you can have is probably small.”

Zink is not registered with a political party and describes her affiliation as the “party of health.” She said she didn’t really know the governor or Crum, or what it would be like to work with them. “But I just also felt like I wouldn’t know unless I tried,” she said.

Zink speaks at a news conference with Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Dunleavy, in a phone interview, said he’s come to trust Zink as an “honest broker” who presents him with information and choices, without advocating for a specific position.

“You get to me by using data. You don’t get to me by using emotion or threats,” Dunleavy said. “You ask her a question, she’s all facts.”

The Dunleavy administration’s aggressive measures to contain the coronavirus have undercut emergency room doctors’ initial skepticism about Zink taking the job, and so has the state’s low number of cases, said Peimann.

“That was because of the actions of the administration,” he said. “I give Anne and the governor credit.”

After more than a month of frenetic work organizing Alaska’s initial response to the pandemic, Zink and other top administration officials now face a different and more prolonged challenge: trying to revive the state’s devastated economy while keeping the virus at bay, as residents grow increasingly impatient with the limitations on their lives.

Zink is working from her yurt with three phones and three laptops, sometimes starting at 4 a.m. She said she still makes time for runs or walks with her two daughters, but spends most of her days on conference calls and in videoconference meetings — sometimes two or three at once.

In her first several months on the job, Zink said she felt like the state was making progress toward fixing some of the systemic problems she saw as an emergency room doctor. But since January, the work demanded by the coronavirus just “grew and grew and grew,” she said.

Murkowski said she called Zink early on a recent Saturday morning, just to remind her to take care of herself.

“We exchanged the pleasantries, going back and forth. But then she wanted to spend the next half hour with me, updating me on everything that was going on, and all the good things and where the challenges were,” Murkowski said. “She’s just that type of person.”

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