I rounded on my patients this morning at our fancy new hospital and received the sad news that Dr. Paul Isaak had died. Dr. Isaak was here before we had a hospital; he witnessed the transition of the peninsula as it grew from a few homesteaders to the large communities of today. His death forced me to reflect on the history of medical care on the peninsula and the contribution he made. Some things have stayed the same, but many things are different.
The last time I visited with Dr. Isaak, he was quizzing me about the abilities of ultrasound to help with figuring out what might be wrong with a patient.
He had the curiosity of a scientist, the sharp mindedness of a diagnostician and a twinkle in his eye as he envisioned the possibilities. I think many in the medical field still have those characteristics. But we take for granted that we have the ultrasound, the 24-hour staffed laboratory, radiology department and an emergency room with the helicopter outside.
When Dr. Isaak (and his also departed cohort Dr. Gaede) first came here, they were the emergency doctor, the obstetrician and the surgeon. They were often even the ambulance drivers.
Dr. Isaak once told me an amazing story about flying a patient with an acute appendicitis in need of surgery to the Seward Hospital, the only place surgery could be done “back then.” He slowly described how he flew 10 minutes in one direction, and then 15 minutes in another following what he knew from past experience was the route through the pass. Only now he was traveling at night in a white out winter storm. He was forever grateful when he saw the Seward airstrip below him. He was able to land and take his patient to the hospital, remove a sick appendix and save his patient’s life.
My children complain if they have to hang out in the doctors’ lounge with its TV, Internet connected computer and stocked refrigerator. But I suspect the family of Dr. Isaak spent many nights chopping wood to stay warm and wondering when they might see their husband/father again. Amy Isaak, with her quiet presence, is an amazing woman and likely provided the support and strength that allowed Dr. Isaak to do what he did for all those years.
People still have babies in the middle of the night and get sick during our children’s soccer games, but we have more support staff and doctors to cover. We still do what we have to do “in the moment” to try and save a life or ease our patient’s pain. We have immunizations, medications, lab tests, radiology tests and the latest medical information at our fingertips. Dr. Isaak only dreamed about it.
I like to believe this helps our patients live longer and better quality lives, especially the children. But we sometimes forget to sit at a bedside holding our patient’s hand when we know we have done everything we can. I suspect Dr. Isaak did a lot of that.
In this age of “American Idol” with overnight stars, 24-hour news stations and millionaire athletes, we must remember the real heroes. Dr. Isaak is a hero. He bravely came to a remote peninsula in Alaska and often single handedly made the difference between someone living or dying.
He didn’t just do one amazing save, he served the unborn, the young and old, in good weather and bad, year after year. He shared his wisdom and skilled hands. He spent hours away from his own family serving other families. Thank you, Dr. Paul Isaak for the care you gave the people of the Kenai Peninsula and reminding me what being a doctor is all about.
Katy Sheridan is a family doctor on the Kenai Peninsula. She was born -- delivered by Dr. Gaede -- and raised on the central peninsula.
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