For many, sitting in an enclosed space with lots of strangers is a bit scary right now. Since the pandemic hit, the number of people choosing to fly has tanked.
But in Alaska, that’s often not an option. Some families needing medical care have been postponing their trips for as long as they can rather than traveling.
Melissa O’Bryan has taken six flights in the month of August alone. Her son Owen has a seizure disorder and a thyroid disorder, and typically visits Seattle Children’s hospital at least every three months. Plus, the family recently flew to Kansas to pick up Owen’s service dog.
“When COVID first hit, we actually had appointments scheduled and we canceled them. I didn’t feel safe taking my son to Seattle at that time,” she said.
She postponed some appointments and switched others to telemedicine. But she lives in Ketchikan, so she couldn’t put off flying forever.
“There’s certain surgical procedures that have to be done that can only be done in Seattle,” she said. “So it’s, it’s definitely, it’s definitely a struggle for Southeast.”
She routinely has to travel out of state for her son’s health care. That’s normal.
“What’s not normal is, you know, having to quarantine and having to test and making sure our employers understood that, that not only were we going to be gone for a week, but then we would have this time period afterwards.”
Her day job is program director at Southeast Alaska Independent Living, or SAIL, which helps senior citizens and those with disabilities. So she’s helped many families navigate these kinds of decisions. And she says that while she’s lucky to be able to afford hotel costs for isolation after flying, that’s not the case for everyone.
She recounted one client’s dilemma.
“He was going to come home and, and quarantine in a tent because he didn’t want to potentially expose his, his wife who was also immune compromised.”
In the end, SAIL helped the man spring for a hotel room.
But this does illustrate how juggling the necessity of medical visits with the risks from traveling creates a sort of Catch-22. O’Bryan recounted how in her recent travel, she noticed that not everyone around her takes the pandemic seriously.
“Every single time a flight attendant would walk away, somebody would take their mask off,” O’Bryan said.
Amanda Hulstine is a nurse practitioner and owner of a family health clinic in Ketchikan. She says she routinely talks through the pros and cons of traveling for treatment. She has some standard questions for patients:
“What are they traveling for? Is it something that should not be postponed for a reason? And then if the travel is truly necessary that they go, what is their risk?”
She recounts the early days of the pandemic — this spring — when the Seattle area was one of the biggest COVID-19 hot spots in the country, and hospitals made the decision for patients.
“I have had numerous clients who had their treatments or their surgeries or anything completely postponed because of it,” she said.
Sometimes it’s the patients that postpone the appointment. Roger and Susan Stone canceled their March doctor’s visit in Seattle because they’re at higher risk for COVID-19. Susan began her fourth round of cancer treatment in January. Eventually they had to get on a plane in August.
“I wasn’t real thrilled about going to Seattle,” she said. “But, you know, like I said, I didn’t really have an option. But again, we were really careful when we went there.”
Susan Stone says the trip went well and that she’s had a positive experience with her treatment. But she and her husband are worried about others not following travel mandates.
“My fear is that because there’s probably a large percentage of people getting off at airplanes ’cause a flight terminated here that didn’t go through the testing or the question period, you know, what is the exposure to the community?” Roger Stone said.
The changing travel restrictions and increased fears of flying might end up pushing families to seek treatment closer to home. Both the Stone and O’Bryan families say they’ve spent more time with their physicians in Ketchikan.
“The partnership between our hospital and the hospital there has really lessened the time that I have to be en route or down in Seattle, which I’ve very much appreciated,” Susan Stone said.
No one knows how long the pandemic and subsequent fears of flying will continue. And while getting on a plane for treatment is a necessary hassle for some, the pandemic might also result in people getting to know their local doctors a little better.