Fish head soup wins Community Health Leaders award

ANCHORAGE — Moose stew and fish head soup would surprise patients at most nursing homes, but Kay Branch found that those traditional foods can light up the eyes of elderly Alaska Natives in urban living facilities far from their village homes.


Branch’s creative resolve to make sure Native elders receive culturally important care has landed her a national award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Anchorage woman is among 10 recipients of the foundation’s 2012 Community Health Leaders Award.

Foundation officials say Branch was selected for her tireless commitment. Branch, who was to be honored with the other recipients in San Antonio Wednesday night, directs the statewide elder care program for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage.

Branch, 57, said her mission is to see more elders stay in their villages and cared for by family members or locals — a daunting challenge for small, remote communities that are off the road system and have limited medical amenities. When staying at home is not possible, Branch and others in a tribal health network seek ways to bring an elder’s culture to urban nursing homes and assisted living facilities, such as providing traditional foods.

“This is where it really hits home because the food is so different,” Branch told The Associated Press.

Branch is a non-native originally from Lakeland, Fla. But she enjoys cooking up traditional foods for elderly patients at nursing homes, making sure to save salmon fish heads from fishing trips with her husband.

She recalled the time a woman from the Bethel area who was staying in an Anchorage nursing home learned that elders would be eating moose stew that day. The woman replied, “Oh, good, we don’t have to have chicken,” according Branch.

“These Alaska Native elders didn’t grow up eating chicken,” she said.

Tribal health consortium CEO Roald Helgesen said Branch is known around the state as the “go-to resource” for helping Native elders. Branch and the consortium’s tribal partners set up an elder visiting outreach program that recruits volunteers and students visit elders in Anchorage nursing homes, he said.

“She has led the completion of a statewide elder needs assessment, piloted a tribal long-term care service delivery plan, and provided advice for the successful development of an 18-person nursing home at the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue,” Helgesen said in a statement. “Congratulations to Kay Branch on this award and thank you to her and her team for providing services and attention to Alaska’s valued elders.

Ron Pitka, an Athabascan from Mentasta Lake, credits Branch for helping him bring his wife back home to the village after she was treated at an Anchorage facility for a year following a stroke. It took a “mountain of paperwork” to get his wife, Lotha Wolf, released and Branch did the paperwork herself, Pitka said.

But Branch is not one to seek glory, according to Pitka.

“She always says she is not important,” he said. “But she is important.”

Branch herself said it was weird to receive the national award. She coordinates statewide efforts, but it’s actually people in tribal health care organizations who do the hands-on work. “I feel pretty overwhelmed,” she said.

Recipients of the awards each receive $105,000 to create a project in their fields. Branch said she plans to brainstorm with others when she returns to Alaska and figure out where to invest the money.