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Frozen: How Do You Bring Cutting-Edge X-Ray Tech To A Snowy Island Off The Coast Of Alaska?

Gambell, Alaska, is one of the few points in North America where you can see Russia on a clear day. The land around the tiny town, on the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, is barren without a tree in sight — nothing grows over 6 inches high on the tundra. Most of the year the town is covered in snow. The local Yupik people follow their traditional subsistence lifestyle of hunting and eating whales, seals and other marine life, which helps connect them to their strong cultural roots and is more affordable than importing a typical Western diet to such an isolated place.

Those remote conditions created a unique challenge for Cody Pittman, GE Healthcare director of service for Alaska and Seattle, and his team earlier this year when they needed to deliver two GE Optima portable X-ray machines to local Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC) clinics in Gambell and Savoonga, another tiny village on the north shore of St. Lawrence Island. “We had to figure this out. Alaska can be an afterthought to many people in the U.S. I mean, how many places in the U.S. can you not drive to?” Pittman asks. “But we’re bringing cutting-edge technology to a remote place like this so these people can get the same type of healthcare as someone in downtown Seattle can get, and I think that’s pretty cool.”

Top and above: The 1,000-pound machines were too big and heavy to fly on the single-engine airplanes that usually make the trip from Nome, Alaska, to St. Lawrence. So, the GE team rented a C 130 military-style cargo plane to move the machines. Images credit: GE Healthcare.

While the healthcare clinics in Gambell and Savoonga already had X-ray machines, they were late 1990s technology. “The quality of the images with our new X-ray system is so much better that our patients benefit from the lower amount of radiation needed to take the images,” says Cathy DeAngelis, manager of radiology at NSHC. “When we have connectivity issues and the images cannot be sent to the radiologist for interpretation, the image quality is detailed enough for the practitioner to evaluate for injury or major trauma. This will also help determine the course of treatment for the patient as soon as possible.”

This means they can now quickly assess whether the patient can be treated locally or needs to be flown to the mainland for more treatment. “For critical patients, this reduces the time between injury and treatment, which can save a life,” DeAngelis says.

To get the equipment to St. Lawrence Island, Pittman had to get creative. The 1,000-pound machines were too big and heavy to fly on the single-engine airplanes that usually make the trip from Nome, Alaska, to St. Lawrence. So, Pittman rented a C 130 military-style cargo plane to move the machines.

The toughest part was transporting the medical scanner the one-eighth of a mile from the plane to the Gambell clinic over 2 feet of snow. Image credit: GE Healthcare.

But because of the long distances and the weather conditions, the plane was only able to stay on the ground at either village airstrip for a few hours. So, to do as much beforehand as possible, GE field engineers began installation, setup and running the new machines through their paces in Anchorage, Alaska, to save time in the villages. Then, a week before the units were to be shipped, GE field engineer Adam Reynolds and technical support engineer Claudio Torres flew to Gambell and Savoonga to prepare the clinics. They tested the old machines and scouted a path to move the new units into the clinics. “I spent the night in Savoonga,” says Reynolds. “I brought my sleeping bag and MRE meals because I knew there wouldn’t be anywhere to get anything to eat.”

On January 18, after scrapping two flights because of weather, Reynolds and GE field engineer Don Schoelz flew with the new machines on the C 130 first to Gambell and then on to Savoonga. The toughest part was transporting the Optima the one-eighth of a mile from the plane to the Gambell clinic over 2 feet of snow. They were able to load the X-ray machine onto an articulated front loader and slowly move it to the clinic. There, some of the village residents had helped Reynolds build a snow ramp down to the clinic entrance because the snow was so high. Once the machine was inside, it was simply a matter of plugging it in and getting back on the plane for the 15-minute flight to Savoonga.

While the healthcare clinics in Gambell and Savoonga already had X-ray machines, they were late 1990s technology. “The quality of the images with our new X-ray system is so much better that our patients benefit from the lower amount of radiation needed to take the images,” says Cathy DeAngelis, manager of radiology at NSHC. Image credit: GE Healthcare.

In Savoonga, there was a new problem. Its front loader bogged down in some soft snow. “Luckily, we were able to reroute it to some firmer snow,” Reynolds says. “But that was a scary moment.”

After installation, NSHC brought clinicians from the village healthcare centers to Nome to train them on using the new machines. Today, the residents of Gambell and Savoonga have access to modern imaging technology that will go a long way toward helping the population stay healthy. GE engineers are able to monitor the machines remotely so that if anything breaks, they can usually fix it without needing to make the trip back to St. Lawrence Island. “These people aren’t leaving there; it’s their traditional home,” says Pittman. “We’re honored to be able to help and support them the best that we can.”

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