Medical student comes to town through rural health care program

A medical student is visiting the Wrangell Medical Center for a month this summer to learn more about rural medicine and prepare herself for a future as a physician in Alaska.

Christine Richter, who recently finished her first year at the University of Washington School of Medicine, arrived in town July 22 and will stay until Aug. 19. "I was so happy when I saw I got placed here (in Wrangell)," she said. Though she was born and raised in Anchorage, she hasn't had the opportunity to explore much of Southeast and looks forward to her time in town.

As an undergraduate at University of Alaska Anchorage, Richter studied the natural sciences, but wasn't sure what she wanted to pursue after college. Then, two weeks after she graduated, her mother had a ruptured brain aneurysm and needed emergency surgery. Thankfully, there was a specialist visiting Anchorage for a few weeks, or else Richter's mother would have had to take a three-hour flight to Seattle for treatment.

The experience, said Richter, "really sparked my interest in working in the medical community, particularly in Alaska," where treatment is often less accessible than it is in the Lower 48.

Richter enrolled in medical school at the University of Washington, where students choose to either participate in a research project after their first year or visit a rural community to learn more about the challenges of rural medicine. Richter's interest in accessible care in Alaska motivated her to opt for the Rural Underserved Opportunities Program.

Rural medicine is "an important part of how medicine in our state functions," she said, and she looks forward to "learning more about how health care is delivered in a more remote area." She also hopes to get to know the community and experience Wrangell life during the few weeks she'll have here.

When she isn't assisting Dr. Lynn Prysunka at the Wrangell Medical Center, she plans to explore Petroglyph Beach, Anan Wildlife Observatory and the island's many beautiful hiking trails. While on the job, her responsibilities may include taking medical histories, talking to patients and gaining hands-on medical experience.

During the program's four-week immersion rotation, medical students work with local physicians to provide health care in underserved areas throughout Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. These five states comprise the WWAMI program, an acronym that stands for the names of the member states. WWAMI is a collaboration between six universities across the Northwest that allows students to pursue opportunities across the region.

During her undergraduate years, Richter researched ways to diagnose gastric cancer in Alaska Native populations, who have historically been left out of scientific studies and who are at a high risk for the disease. Currently, the cancer can only be diagnosed using an invasive procedure. The lab Richter worked in was seeking ways to identify its presence through blood tests. "We just really wanted to make sure that (the Alaska Native population is) being adequately represented," she said.

In the future, Richter hopes to provide health care in her home state. "There's a huge need for it in Alaska, as I'm sure everyone knows," she said. "For me, it's a huge part of giving back and giving the best care that you can in the state."


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