Kathleen (Lynch) Eussen, ’67: Promoting Healthy Communities
May 9, 2019 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
There is arguably no greater cultural difference in the United States than New York City and the Alaskan “bush.” NU alumna Kathleen (Lynch) Eussen, ’67, experienced both extremes early in her career as a public health nurse.
Eussen, the daughter of a New York City police officer and a homemaker, came to Niagara from the Bronx, at a time when the nursing profession was recognizing the value of moving nursing education out of hospitals and bringing it into institutes of higher learning. The bachelor’s degree she earned in 1967 opened the door to what would ultimately become her chosen specialty in nursing: public health.
“In senior year, we did public health and I really enjoyed that,” Eussen said. “I enjoyed the home visits, the one-on-one contact with people and the challenge working with people in their home.”
After graduation, Eussen returned to her New York City roots for a year, where she worked for the Westchester County Health Department. A co-worker, whose physician husband had been stationed in Alaska during WWII, suggested she consider going to that state to try something different. Eussen, who was looking for a challenge, followed her advice.
An itinerant public health nurse position with the State of Alaska’s Division of Public Health was available so, in August of 1968, Eussen packed her bags and left for Anchorage.
She soon discovered that the books she had read about the 49th state did not match what living and working there would really be like.
“I worked in what they called the bush,” Eussen explained. “The bush is where there are no roads, and people must rely on airplanes to travel any distance.”
The area she was assigned was about 400 miles west of Anchorage; the US Public Health Service-designated Southwest Service Unit District. She was one of five public health nurses working in that service unit. Eussen’s geographic area encompassed the tundra at the lower end of the Kuskokwim River, transitioning to an area with trees and the foothills of mountains going up river. She was assigned 12 villages, visiting each four times a year. Monthly, she traveled for three weeks, visiting four of villages every trip.
The trip involved taking “The Big Plane,” a 50-seat aircraft, to Bethel. The largest village on the river, it had a population of 1,200, two stores, the regional public health service hospital, and a site on the river deep enough to accommodate ocean-going ships. The ships brought a large amount of canned food, fuel, and supplies during the summer, allowing people to survive over the long winters. She then took a small “mail” plane (four- to 10-seater) that flew twice a week to each village, weather permitting. These planes landed on skis in the winter and floats in the summer, Eussen noted.
The villages’ populations were between 50 and 300; most had a government school and sometimes a small store. Eussen stayed with the teachers, as there were no other housing options. She was responsible for public health activities such as disease control that included monitoring villagers taking TB medications and doing contact investigations of new cases, as well as responding to other communicable diseases such as STIs, typhoid, and other gastrointestinal diseases. She was also the school nurse, administering immunizations and testing hearing and vision. She followed up with children with disabilities and assisted the village health aides, who visited ill people at home and communicated with physicians at the USPS hospital via radio for care directions each day. Monitoring pregnant women was an important function, as was encouraging them to go Bethel before their due date to ensure they would have access to hospital health care for delivery. This access was important to assure a healthy outcome for mother and baby.
Eussen recalls one woman, in particular, who delivered a child with a severe cleft lip and palate, at the regional hospital. Although the child was transferred to the large native medical center in Anchorage for specialized care, the mother returned to her village. Special needs children often did not thrive in the villages due to lack of parental knowledge and skill in meeting their needs. Eussen interceded when the plan was to have someone bring the baby to the mother in her village. The mother was able to join her child at the hospital, where she learned how to feed and care for the baby.
Eussen came to learn the different cultures of the people she served: In the lower river, they were Yup'ik Eskimos, while in the upper, they were Athabaskan Indians. While both were mostly subsistence hunters and fishers, their traditions and language were different. She learned there were no group words for things like snow or animals, only individual names of each animal or different types of snow. Gender was not an important part of the Eskimo language, and it make conversation confusing when a mother would refer to a child as he or she in the same sentence.
“Now, looking back, I don’t think I had a real understanding what I would face,” Eussen said. “It was such an overwhelming experience, going from New York City to the Alaskan bush. I think I was in shock for the first six or seven months. But I enjoyed Alaska immensely, and I think it was the place where I emotionally grew up, as I had to figure out how to handle things on my own and survive in a difficult environment. It was kind of a make-or-break situation.”
Eussen lived in Alaska for seven years, eventually working for the Anchorage Borough Health Department, where she met her husband, and had her first son. But the long winters took their toll--“We would watch the sun come up at 10 a.m. and watch it go down at 3 p.m.”—so when she and her family had an opportunity to move to Olympia, Wash., in 1975, they took it.
In Washington, Eussen had her second son and continued her public health career. She worked for the Thurston County health department for 20 years. Because the state capital, Olympia, is in this county, she was active during legislative sessions, educating elected officials about public health issues. One such initiative involved participating in the effort to expand Medicaid coverage for pregnant women. Many low- and middle-income women were unable to get health insurance for their pregnancy at that time. This led to them receiving no care and arriving at the hospital in labor, with no information available about their health status.
“Expanding Medicaid coverage to these women decreased complications among pregnant women and infants in Washington state,” Eussen said.
Moving south to neighboring Lewis County, Eussen worked for almost a decade, retiring as the director of public health and social services there. Like Alaska, the people in the counties she served were very different—in Thurston, there were many state employees with a higher overall education level, while Lewis, a rural agrarian community, had primarily blue collar workers—so the issues she dealt with in each job varied accordingly. But in both counties, Eussen’s focus went beyond the health of the individuals to looking at the entire community and the health issues that affected it.
“How to bring about change in the community is a really important,” she said, adding that she was happy to see that the nursing program at Niagara is doing community assessment. “Knowing the community is very important, because sometimes focusing solely on the person without an awareness of the community where they live may leave out information that may have a major impact on person’s ability to be healthy.”
Eussen retired in 2009, but has continued her public health nursing as a volunteer. Certified as a parish nurse, she visits homebound parishioners of her church, and volunteers at a clinic providing immunizations to recent immigrants and refugees.
Most recently, Eussen has become involved in Clark County, her current county of residence, as it sought to control transmission of measles. She participated on the county Medical Reserves Corps, working in the incident command center to talk with potential measles cases, contact exposed individuals, and verify immunizations histories with health care providers, among other things, with the goal of stopping the disease spread in the county.
“This work reminded me, we were too confident about controlling measles in this country,” she said. “It takes constant vigilance and monitoring to keep communicable diseases under control. It was good to get back and to do that kind of work again.”