Here’s what it’s like to be medevaced to Anchorage from rural Alaska with COVID-19

An Alaska Native woman rests her arms on a railing.
Esther Green (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Being medevaced 400 miles from Bethel to Anchorage to be treated for COVID-19 is tough. Getting back home can feel even longer.

When elder Esther Green was medevaced to Anchorage in October, no one could accompany her, said her son Wilson Green. Later, while undergoing treatment in Providence Hospital’s intensive care unit, they could not visit or talk to her until she was released more than two weeks later.

“I kept calling Providence. They finally gave me a call and said they’ll call as soon as they’re able to have her talk to me,” Wilson said. “It was like 15, 16 days when they finally called me. I didn’t talk to my mom ’til when I saw her after they were ready to release her.”

Esther Green had been flown to Anchorage with pneumonia and COVID-19. Wilson said she has only a hazy memory of her time in the hospital: She was still confused, and needed lots of care at her time of release. Doctors said she was contagious. She was attached to oxygen, and could hardly walk up to the house, Wilson said.

“She was really weak. I thought, ‘Oh my God, she still needs to be in the hospital.’ Every two or three steps she would have to stop, catch her breath, then go again. It took her three minutes from my parking lot at my house to bring her in,” Wilson said.

And that was only the beginning. After leaving the hospital, Esther needed a private room to isolate in Anchorage. Everyone in the house had to wear masks. Medical equipment needed to be set up to care for her, and her family needed training to provide that care.

“The transporter people gave me a crash course on (how to) adjust the oxygen and the levels,” Wilson said. “That machine also has a humidifier, which they showed me how to disconnect, dump, put back together again. Just constant monitoring.”

Wilson said his family cared for Esther 24 hours a day, checking in with her throughout the night, adjusting her oxygen levels, and doing whatever was needed. She had to be isolated for five more days. It wasn’t possible to transfer her to the Alaska Native Medical Center, or even make an appointment for consultation, until after her isolation.

The family’s challenges didn’t end there. Once she was no longer contagious, getting her her home to Bethel required securing specialized equipment to provide oxygen during the flight, and a gauntlet of paperwork.

“It’s all coded, so the provider has to provide that to the air supply company, and it has to be attached with your paperwork when you go try to check in,” Wilson said. “You also have to have clearance concerning COVID, saying she passed her contagious stage. We ended up having to be kicked back, not able to fly until we had those.”

But once the paperwork was finally sorted out, Esther made it home to Bethel.

Her recovery is ongoing. Her journey — being medevaced alone, staying in the ICU, the absence of communication with family, being contagious while still requiring care, needing a safe place to stay while remaining isolated, navigating multiple medical providers, the struggle to get home — illustrates how harrowing it can be for rural Alaskans not just to experience major illnesses, but to seek treatment.