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Medicine on the fly

Pioneer doctor, pilot filled prescription of Soldotna area’s needs

Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2007

 

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  Dr. Paul Isaak and nurse, Miss Meadows, pose in front of the clinic in Soldotna in 1960. The clinic was in between where the Sterling Highway and Central Emergency Services building are now in downtown Soldotna. Photos courtesy of Isaak family

Dr. Paul Isaak and nurse, Miss Meadows, pose in front of the clinic in Soldotna in 1960. The clinic was in between where the Sterling Highway and Central Emergency Services building are now in downtown Soldotna.

Photos courtesy of Isaak family

He was a no-nonsense, straight-talking man, those closest to him say, an adventurous pilot and a healer who was as comfortable with a stethoscope as an aerial stunt.

Dr. Paul Isaak’s death at 85 on April 24 may have ended a remarkable life, but not the memories of those who knew him, nor the medical legacy he left behind.

He was a dedicated man, his sons and daughters said of him.

 

Dr. Isaak is awarded the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Pioneer Award in 2005.

“As a father, he was pretty serious and quiet. He read a tremendous amount, and spent a lot of time in his shop working on airplanes,” Dave Isaak said.

“Dad said it and we did it. We didn’t argue,” recalled his daughter Jane Cork.

“But he wasn’t always serious,” Dave added. “He had a wonderfully dry sense of humor. He was very accessible.”

 

Dr. Isaak worked tirelessly to get Central Peninsula Hospital built. It's shown here in 1970.

Photo courtesy of Central Penins

He was the kind of person who would take the time to explain the finer points of eating sunflower seeds and spitting out the shells to his 5-year-old granddaughter Christy (now 20), Dave’s daughter.

Perceptions of parents by children are often different from those of friends. Dave said he has been learning a lot about his dad over the last year, stuff he never knew.

Information supplied by the family, as well as autobiographical notes penned by Dr. Isaak, help paint a picture of his extraordinary career delivering medical care on the peninsula at a time when Soldotna was not far removed from a frontier.

Paul Isaak was born July 10, 1921, the 12th of 13 children. As the youngest son, he remained on the family’s South Dakota farm to work after finishing eighth grade at the insistence of his father.

He left in 1942 to join the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the Pacific theater retaking islands from the Japanese in World War II. After the war ended, Isaak — like so many of his generation upon discharge — hit the road to see the country, often aboard a Harley-Davidson, until an accident ended his riding days.

Eventually, Isaak determined it was time to pursue an education. Not having a high school diploma prevented him from entering college immediately, so he attended Augustana Academy in Canton, S.D., completing his high school requirements in 1948 after just two semesters.

It was there that he met and married Amy Christensen.

He went on to medical school in Vermillion, S.D., and then transferred to the University of Nebraska in Omaha. By the time he’d earned his medical degree, he was the father of four.

He interned at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, but the lure of the north was strong, and in 1957 he packed his 1949 Hudson and left the Lower 48 with his family for Seward, where he’d accepted an invitation to work with Dr. Joseph Deisher. He lived and practiced medicine there for the next three years.

It wasn’t long before Isaak took to the air.

“I started taking lessons almost immediately and bought my first plane while living there,” Dr. Isaak noted in autobiographical material written when he was 79. He also started moose hunting. “I got my first moose in the fall of 1957, and have kept our freezers stocked with moose, elk, caribou or deer each year since,” he wrote.

By 1959, he was splitting his work weeks between Seward and Soldotna, covering the miles by air. He converted a two-story house in Soldotna into a clinic. In 1960 — recognizing both need and opportunity, he said — Dr. Isaak moved his family to Soldotna.

“We moved into the two-bedroom trailer with our five children, the last one having been born in Seward on Christmas Day the previous year,” he said.

Not long after, he filed on a 160-acre homestead that had been relinquished by a psychiatrist he’d met. Amy and he built a dwelling — a basement, to begin with — and moved in during the summer of 1961. A landing strip was soon added.

It was the start of a long and productive period in Dr. Isaak’s professional and personal life.

About a year after moving to Soldotna, the community built a new clinic for him and his partner, Dr. Elmer Gaede. It was, as he said, “a vast improvement” over what they’d been used to “and enabled us to do most of our deliveries, tonsillectomies, D and Cs in the clinic, inasmuch as Dr. Gaede was adept at giving anesthesia.”

A few years later, the doctors erected their own clinic, complete with an adequate laboratory and X-ray facilities, giving them what they needed to perform medical procedures that ordinarily might have been done in a hospital.

Dr. Isaak said he soon learned that new mothers often could be sent home safely within 24 hours of delivery. Standard practice at the time was to have women remain in the hospital for four to seven days. In a sense, Isaak was ahead of his time. These days, women normally are sent home after one or two days.

With no hospital available in Soldotna, Isaak often flew patients in need of hospital care to Seward. That meant winging it through the mountains, and not always under blue skies.

“My usual route going to Seward from Soldotna was through Resurrection Pass. I flew through there over 2,000 times, but on occasion, the pass would be fogged in to where it was impossible to get through,” he wrote. “Then I would have to fly the highway. The weather rarely kept me from flying, but if it did I would have to drive to Seward by auto to make my hospital rounds.”

He had several close calls, he said.

Once while flying a pneumonia patient to Seward in the dead of winter, wind played havoc with landing attempts. He said half the town came to the air strip believing he needed car lights to illuminate the runway.

“The darkness wasn’t the problem,” he said. “It was the extreme turbulence that made me hesitant to land.”

Landing on his fourth attempt, he told his passenger that it wasn’t the kind of flying he preferred.

On another occasion while flying an expectant mother to Seward, weather forced them back, necessitating the long road trip. The baby arrived eight miles short of Seward in the back seat.

Blinded by a whiteout as he was making an approach during another flight — with Amy aboard — he missed the plowed runway and his wing caught a snowbank, flipping the plane. Neither was hurt, but it was indicative of the hazards of Alaska flying.

Long-time friend and, on occasion, Dr. Isaak’s patient, Herman Stenga, recalled following Isaak in the air as his friend nursed his stunt biplane to Anchorage for engine repairs. Isaak had no radio, so Stenga had to clear him to land.

“After we landed he told me the engine had been missing something terrible — but that he’d ‘finally got into the air,’” Stenga said, recalling how unconcerned Isaak seemed. “He said it popped and backfired all the way. That’s just the way he was.”

Stenga said they once took their planes to Afognak Island on an elk hunting trip. Isaak, his plane already filled with meat, insisted on strapping old airplane parts to the fuselage and floats salvaged from numerous wrecks scattered about the island. He strapped elk racks to the wings, Stenga said.

“It looked like Jake’s Aircraft Salvage Yard. The only thing missing was a couple of German shepherd watchdogs,” he said.

Overloaded, Stenga said Isaak ran out of fuel just south of the Kenai River and set the Super Cub down on Cook Inlet in shallow water, hopped out in his hip boots and was pushing it along with the tide until a passing motorist stopped. Isaak sent him for a few gallons of fuel, and when it arrived, filled his tank and took off as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

“He just didn’t think too much about it,” Stenga recalled.

Once in Cordova, the hunters downed a goose but it fell across a shallow tidal gut. Stenga said Isaak merely stripped to his skin and swam across to bring it back.

“He came back purple. He was just so full of life. He not only lived in Alaska, he was Alaska.”

Karen Isaak said her father was the exception to the rule that there are bold pilots and old pilots but no bold old pilots.

Speaking through her son Dave and his wife, Sharon, about her husband’s flying career during an interview, Amy Isaak said, “There is an old expression — ‘on a wing and a prayer,’ He was the wing. I was the prayer.”

Dr. Isaak not only flew patients when necessary and on hunting trips for pure recreation, he also became a stunt pilot, and acquired a small biplane for the purpose. That biplane now serves as a weather vane at Soldotna Airport.

In a Peninsula Clarion article written in the early 1980s, Isaak is quoted as saying he taught himself the stunt maneuvers by reading a book. There were a few narrow escapes as he learned the skills, he said.

He often traveled to air shows around Alaska to perform.

Dave Isaak said his father continued flying until just a couple of years ago, quitting at 83, an age when many people have stopped driving cars.

While his thrills may have come from flying, his heart was dedicated to medicine, and in the 1960s, Soldotna’s lack of a hospital was a condition Drs. Isaak and Gaede and the community at large were bent on remedying.

The two worked tirelessly to secure the funding necessary to erect the facility, which finally opened in 1971.

Bonnie Nichols, director of marketing and public relations at Central Peninsula Hospital, said their advocacy was critical.

“He was a guiding light” for many, she said, something that seemed to continue even long after he’d retired.

“After he left practice, he was still such an asset and resource. There are stories of people going to his hanger (where he continued to tinker with aircraft) just to ask his advice.”

Not only was he instrumental in forwarding the hospital project, but also in helping to attract the medical specialists who eventually would practice there, she said.

Dr. Isaak’s daughter Jane said fundraising often took her father away from home, sometimes Outside, in search of hospital funds. After the hospital was complete, she thought she’d see more of him at home. As it turned out, hospital rounds typically came after work in his own office, so he seemed to be at home even less, she said.

As he and his siblings matured, Dave said, they came to appreciate that the time they sacrificed without their father meant worlds to patients who could remain with their families because they did not have to travel to Anchorage or Seward for care, thanks to the presence of Isaak and Gaede.

Stenga said he saw that first hand. His family and the Isaaks became fast friends, their children grew up together. Dr. Isaak cared for their medical needs many times, he said.

“We shared him with the whole peninsula. He saved a lot of people with what he had to work with, which wasn’t much in those days,” he said. “He was a very good doctor.”

Katy Sheridan, a Soldotna family physician, said Isaak “was an amazing man” worth writing a book about. She recalled he had a serious, no-nonsense style with which he delivered quality care — just what a peninsula full of homesteaders needed.

She said her father, a homesteader, once spent three days digging a well. At one point, she said, he got very lightheaded, barely crawling out of the well. He began urinating blood, she said. After lying in bed a couple of days, a friend came over and insisted he go see the new doctor in town.

“The office was in a house then and the waiting room was full,” Dr. Sheridan said. “He went to the desk and said it was an emergency. They got him in quick. Dr. Isaak thumped him on the back a few times, said, ‘You have a urinary infection; take this and get out of here. I have a lot of sick people here.’”

While many doctors today may use a softer approach, there is no doubt, Dr. Sheridan said, that Dr. Isaak made a great deal of difference in peoples’ lives.

“That concept — of a doctor who serves a community made me want to be a family physician,” she said.

Dr. Isaak retired from his practice in 1981, but not from an interest in medicine. His daughter Karen Encelewski said an old German saying seemed to sum up her father’s attitude: “Es lernt neimand aus, bis das Grab ist unser Haus” were words to live by. It means: No one is through learning until the grave is his home.

He began studying alternative medicine, attending natural health seminars to learn more about natural and holistic options.

He learned chelation therapy, a technique used by naturopaths to rid the body of toxins. He learned to use the acuscope and myopulse biofeedback machines used to treat pain and swelling.

After trying them on himself first, he employed hydrogen peroxide therapies, an alternative procedure used for treating heart and vascular diseases, as well as allergies.

Toward the end of his life, he spent many hours working on planes in his shop, his “just do it” attitude toward life strong in him still.

Another long-time friend, Dr. Joe Sangster, said he came to Soldotna in 1971 and stayed for 34 years, largely because of Dr. Isaak.

“He was a fine gentleman, a very generous person, a caring person and one of the best all-around physicians I’ve even known,” he said. “There is not a doctor in Soldotna or Kenai that I am aware of who did not come to the area either directly or indirectly as a result of Dr. Isaak. He was an excellent teacher who shared knowledge freely. He will long be remembered in the area for his deeds, care and kindness.”

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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