Velsko returns to provide health care to community
Homer woman's early experiences prepared her for life in remote areas
In 2015, Amy Velsko was hired to work as a primary healthcare provider in remote communities across the bay from Homer. Well equipped to face the challenges of living and working in an isolated location, Velsko was in fact, coming home.
Velsko was born in Homer and raised in Tutka Lagoon to a father who was the manager of the salmon hatchery in Tutka Bay.
"There was no television, our phone was the marine VHF and our library books were from the Juneau library, drop shipped in burlap sacks from planes," she said.
The family traveled to Homer by boat every month or so for supplies, were often without electricity, heated their home with a wood stove and were very conscientious about how much food they kept because they knew they could be weathered in or out.
Velsko's first trip to Tutka Bay was as a baby in a helicopter. With no roads and only access points, Velsko grew up on boats, planes and 4-wheelers.
"My dad told us that we spent more time in helicopters, floatplanes and boats in 10 years than the average person does in a lifetime," she said.
When she was five years old, the family moved to Nome when her father was transferred.
"We tagged along with dad on hikes and expeditions to count salmon," she said. "We walked creeks, streams and rivers, camped, canoed, rafted, went fishing, snow machining, set crab pots, hiked on the tundra and picked berries."
The Iditarod was a huge part of Velsko's life, happening outside her front door.
"It was an exciting time in Nome," she said. "Spring break was adjusted to when the mushers were coming in and it was a novelty to hear the siren go off in the middle of night and walk out in 20 below to see the mushers."
In 1996, her father retired and the family moved back to Homer. Velsko was excited to be on the road system.
"In Tutka Bay, we traveled by plane, boat and ATV," she said. "In Nome, we had a vehicle, but we walked most places. I knew that in Homer we could drive everywhere."
In 2004, Velsko graduated Homer High School and studied nursing in Hawaii. She was eager to return to Alaska, but unable to find work, so moved to Texas to work at a trauma Level 1 hospital.
Velsko shared that she looked at this time as a work assignment - working three jobs, in school full time studying for her master's degree, getting board certified in medical surgical nursing, bariatric nursing and pain management, and taking additional trauma courses. She also taught nursing at Baylor School of Nursing.
"I had the opportunity to care for all walks of life and was able to explore multiple areas of nursing," she said. "It prepared me well for the work I do now."
In 2015, Velsko returned to Homer with a master's degree as an Advanced Nurse Practitioner. She was excited to be hired to work as a primary healthcare provider serving outlying communities, including Nanwalek and Port Graham, communities close to her heart.
"In Tutka, my dad started a sockeye rehabilitation program and students from Nanwalek and Port Graham stayed with us as interns, becoming part of our family" she said. "Now I work with people who remember me from when I was three and four years old."
Velsko well understands the differences in being remote and being somewhere with access to more resources. The communities of Nanwalek and Port Graham are not attached to the road system, are dependent on planes for mail and everything is weather dependent.
In extreme weather conditions, when air transport and the Coast Guard are unable to reach the communities, the two small clinics become emergency rooms and intensive care units.
"We have support from other staff and volunteer community members, although there are situations where a health aide or myself may be the only medical provider and it becomes a one-man show," she said. "There are so many factors that go into caring for people in the remote communities. There are a lot of processes that most clinics and providers don't really have to think about."
Velsko lives in Homer, but flies to the villages every week, a flight of about 15 minutes.
"I'm back to spending more time in planes again," she said.
Velsko plans to get her doctorate in nursing and to continue practicing in the Homer area. Newly engaged, she also plans to learn to balance her work and home life so she can spend more time with her family.
Her role models include Dr. William Bell who delivered her and who she currently shares some patients with and Dr. Martha Cotton, who grew up across the Bay and serves the Homer area. Her greatest influence, however, is her father.
"My dad is my hero," she shared. "He has always been able to provide me with insight on my career from a prospective outside healthcare. He has lead by example my whole life and inspires me to stay driven and work with integrity in everything that I do."
Velsko hopes that her story inspires others.
"Alaska provided me a rich childhood and a solid foundation to spring from," she said. "My dad has said, look to the future but never forget your past. I think it's really important to come home."