Holidays especially meaningful for those who overcome obstacles

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

Second family brings challenges, contentment

Life has not been easy for Ruthie Poage, and the low point came early in 1971.

The young wife and mother, nine months pregnant with her third child, was waiting for her husband, Ronny Anderson, to get home. He had been chaperoning boys on a scout camping trip and left early because she was having contractions. As soon as he walked in the door that January night, she knew something was wrong.

"He was white as a sheet," she said.

The next day, he died of an aneurysm. He was 26.

The family had been living in a Pennsylvania farmhouse near Baptist Bible College in Clark Summit, where Ronny had been a student. Ruthie packed up her two little girls and took the body to her in-laws for funeral arrangements. As she tried to sleep in a borrowed bed with her sick, puking 2-year-old, her water broke.

Ronny Junior was born exactly one week after his father's death.

The young widow hunkered down in the farmhouse with her newborn and other children.

"I continued to stay there because I didn't know where else to go," she said.

The students from the school and extended family took good care of her. And her Christian faith pulled her through.

"His grace was sufficient," she said.

That spring, her sister moved in to help her. Then her brother, a missionary in Alaska, urged her to travel north to play the piano in his church.

The two sisters and the three youngsters moved into the Kodiak house with their brother and sister-in-law. The house came with another resident: Larry Poage.

Larry's mother, June Gagnon, was from Kenai. In 1962 his dad, Floyd Poage Sr., pulled up stakes in Washington near Everett, where the family had been living, and headed back to Alaska.

"The Alcan was still pretty much a mud trail," he said.

Larry was a boarder at Ruthie's brother's Kodiak house, where he had lived before the missionaries arrived. He was away on a fishing boat when the newcomers arrived.

Ruthie, who dreaded the open water, remembered hearing the voice on the ship-to-shore radio and praying for the safety of the mariner.

When Larry finally got to shore in June, he and the young widow hit it off. He recalled their deepening friendship.

"Every time I'd come in I'd bring a couple crabs," he said. "We'd stay up at night and cook crab."

Ruthie was impressed that he always found time in a busy day to read his Bible. Larry was interested in Baptist Bible College, in the children and, increasingly, in her.

Six months after they met, they got married. They traveled east to Ruthie's hometown in New York and had a Christmas wedding. The bride carried poinsettias, and her daughters wore red, white and green.

"I got married twice in the same church," she said.

Larry said, "When we got married, the first thing I did was go down and adopt the kids. ... All the kids are my kids. That's the way it's always been since we got married."

He attended the Bible school in Pennsylvania, and the family lived in the same farmhouse Ruthie had occupied before life took its unexpected turn.

"But Larry's heart was always with Alaska," she said.

In 1972, she visited Kenai with him for the first time and, in 1973, they moved to the peninsula. They lived in North Kenai until 1976, then moved to a remote cabin on Brown's Lake in the Funny River area.

Along the way, the Poages added five more children to their brood. Larry worked on construction and pipeline jobs on the peninsula, including a stint on the Dolly Varden Platform, and then got involved in real estate.

Life in the boonies had its pros and cons.

For seven years the Poages had no running water or electricity.

"It was hard, but I wouldn't trade it for anything," Ruthie said. "... It is so beautiful."

Access was, at the beginning, miles up an 8-foot-wide Cat trail.

"Mostly, me and the boys went out and cleared that whole roadway," Larry said.

"... All my boys could drive by the time they were 12."

The children had to hike two miles to the bus stop, so the Poages decided it was an opportunity to educate their children with an emphasis on their religious beliefs and opted for home schooling.

The children had friends living nearby and spent happy hours running around in the woods and pelting each other with moose nuggets. They learned to handle guns safely, build fires and master other outdoor skills.

The family hauled water and heated it in a tank atop a wood stove. To take care of most bathing needs, they used a banya -- a rustic Russian-style sauna.

"We used Brown's Lake water," Ruthie said. "I wouldn't do that now."

Transport during breakup was a problem. With Laundromat access difficult and a house full of small children, Ruthie got creative. She did clothes by hand in the swamp, agitating them with a toilet plunger in a garbage can, hanging the soggy results on wires and hoping no visitors would come over the hill and see what she was doing.

For a while, the family had livestock, including pigs, rabbits, geese and laying hens.

Despite the remoteness, they had good neighbors. The Poages still praise the sense of community out Funny River Road.

The couple endured some dark days.

Larry had plans for his dream house and, over time, framed it up, paying out of pocket throughout the process. When they were getting ready to insulate it, it went up in flames.

Ruthie is quick to claim they were lucky because no one was hurt. But it is hard on a man when his house he has worked on so hard burns, she said.

Larry nodded.

"She knows, 'cause I sat around for two weeks playing solitaire," he said.

The family also had rough times with some of their children. They had five teen-age boys at once; and one son is doing time at Wildwood.

When family life got rocky a decade ago, Larry and Ruthie took to the road. They made several trips, spent more than a year traveling out of state and lived a year in Ketchikan. Larry weathered a heart attack.

But now they are back to Brown's Lake, and life is rosy.

Ruthie began a career at age 50 and, although she said she misses housework, she enjoys her work.

In 1997, the couple became personal financial analysts with Primerica, a financial services company. They have an office in Kenai and supervise and train financial advisers. The work is flexible, often can be done from their home and keeps them together.

"We just fell into this," Larry said. "I don't think we could have fallen into a better bed of roses."

This holiday season, the Poages have a lot to be thankful for, they said.

Next month, they will celebrate their 30th anniversary.

They still might build their dream house sometime, and in the meantime the little cabin has its charms.

"We tell people we live in a hundred-dollar cabin with a million-dollar view," Ruthie said.

The Poages said they are grateful for their jobs, their health and family nearby. Larry's parents live in Kenai. Four of the Poages' children live on the peninsula, one is at school in Fairbanks and three live out of state. They have 23 grandchildren.

Larry said their children have grown up and gotten their lives in order.

"They are doing a good job raising their kids to be good members of society," he said.

"I don't think I'm being proud."

Nurse finds inspiration in service

It's a tough job, but patients and their families are glad that Kathy Lopeman took it on.

The oncology nurse at Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna works with people going through some of the most traumatic experiences life can dish out: chemotherapy treatments for cancer. But she loves her work.

"I have seen miracles," she said.

"And we do have defeats."


Kathy Loperman became an oncology nurse when her mother became ill with cancer.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Lopeman said she is not afraid to cry with her patients. Or to laugh with them. The one thing she will not do is discuss their odds of survival.

"The books aren't always right," she said.

Many people, including medical providers, find working with cancer patients depressing, she said. But although the work is intense and emotional, she finds it has given her a perspective on what is important in life and changed her personal attitudes for the better.

Lopeman cited the example of one patient she has been seeing for seven years of grueling medical treatments.

"If she can do that, I can certainly come to work and smile," she said.

Lopeman was born in Montana and grew up in Wyoming. A failed marriage left her a single mother with a need for more income, so she became a licensed practical nurse in 1978.

The work gave her blocks of vacation time, so she accepted the invitation from some friends moving to Alaska who wanted another driver to help get their vehicles north. The jaunt gave her a chance to explore the state a bit.

"I just knew I had to come back," she said.

In 1984 she came to the Kenai Peninsula, living initially in a tent at Centennial Park in Soldotna. For a time she worked as a desk clerk at a lodge, but in December of that year she started work at CPGH.

At first she divided her time between the medical-surgical and obstetrics wards. She returned to school and earned her registered nurse credentials at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The hospital's constant challenges and exposure to new things kept her enthused, she said.

But then her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Lopeman's plans changed.

"I ended up in this line of work because my mother had colon cancer, and I hated the way her treatment went," she said.

Her mother began chemotherapy in another state, but moved to Soldotna. CPGH did not have a formal chemotherapy program at the time; patients were treated on a fairly unpredictable schedule in a remodeled closet.

Lopeman was dismayed at her mother's bruises and nausea. As a nurse, she felt there had to be a better way.

"I think it is all about quality of life," she said.

Although the disease did eventually claim her mother's life, Lopeman was able to improve her care and extend her life long enough for a precious family reunion.

"We bought her an extra year of life," she recalled.

After her mother's death, a voice in her head urged her to take action to help others. She pursued more training and became the first nurse on the Kenai Peninsula certified in chemotherapy and oncology. She lobbied the hospital to set up an oncology center.

"I think it is a cruelty for patients who want to stay home to have to go to Anchorage," she said.

At first, the supervisors authorized her to offer service four hours per week and no separate funding. She had to demonstrate the need for the services and build up a program.

"It was a very long process," she said.

Now the CPGH Outpatient Oncology and Infusion Center is open five days a week, staffed by two nurses and a half-time clerk. In comfortable rooms, trained staff administer chemotherapy, perform transfusions, give injections, change dressings and care for catheters.

"It's come a long way from the four hours a week," she said.

Lopeman carries her dedication to cancer patients beyond her work hours.

She is a regular at the Polar Bear Jump in Seward. In January, she plans to make her fifth jump for the charity fund-raiser and has set her goal at raising $5,000 for the American Cancer Society. It is hard to get back in that cold water, now that she knows what it feels like, but she considers it worth the chill.

"Last year wasn't too bad," she said.

She also chairs the Peninsula Relay for Life. She expects the 2002 race in May to raise $75,000 for cancer research.

Her personal life also has worked out to her satisfaction. Ten years ago she married Bill Lope-man, whom she praises for supporting her emotionally.

"Friday nights to Monday mornings belong to him," she said. "He recognizes that I have to have that break time, and he makes sure I take it."

The Lopemans reside on Strawberry Road and spend free time snowmachining at their Caribou Hills getaway. They have three sons and five grandchildren in their blended family.

For Thanksgiving, the whole family will gather at the Caribou Hills cabin and take turns around the table sharing the things for which they are thankful.

She is thankful for her family and her friends, but also for the gratification she finds in her work, she said.

The patients she works with are like family to her, and someday she plans to write a journal of the life lessons they have taught her.

"I am thankful for each and every one of them," she said.

Lopeman said hope for cures from medical advances offsets the suffering she sees. Cancer research is making dramatic strides, she said.

"I personally feel we are getting closer and closer to having a vaccine," she said.

"Some areas of cancer will be cured. There is just exciting stuff every day."

In the meantime, she is there to offer the latest treatment, a hand to hold and a smile.

"I love what I do. I love my job. I love my patients," she said.

"I'm thankful for being able to make a difference in people's lives."

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