The Road Less Traveled

It’s remote. It’s small. It’s professionally challenging. Apparently, it’s also one of the bear capitals of the world. But none of those things have stopped Dr. Katherine Dubois, D12, the lone dentist practicing in the tiny island village of Wrangell, Alaska.

 Dr. Katherine Dubois, D12, in Wrangell, Alaska

“It’s a challenge,” she said. “I’m the only one here, and there’s a lot of work to do.”

Wrangell, located on the northern tip of Wrangell Island in the Alaska Panhandle, used to be a logging town, but now receives much of its revenue from fishing. In the summer its population is around 2,200 people, but in the winter goes down to about 1,200. And most of the residents rely on Dr. Dubois’s dental practice at the Alaska Island Community Services (AKICS) since she came to town in July 2013.

Dr. Dubois was a lifelong Massachusetts resident; she grew up in New Bedford, received her undergraduate degree from Boston University, and completed her D.M.D. at TUSDM. But, she said, she wanted to live somewhere new. She started considering Alaska after learning the state has a loan repayment assistance program for those who come to work there, and went to Anchorage to visit. Sitting in a restaurant, chatting with a server about her plans, Dr. Dubois was surprised when a stranger commended her.

“This person came up and said they had overheard what I was saying.” Dr. Dubois said. “She said that residents here really appreciate people coming in to make sure they receive the care they need. That was the moment I knew that I wanted to do this.”

After graduating from TUSDM, Dr. Dubois completed a hospital-based general practice residency at the University of Washington in Seattle in 2013, and made her way to Wrangell and AKICS’ two-chair dental clinic. When she first arrived, she found a waiting room of emergencies from a long period of inconsistent care. She said the first few months were just working to catch up on the backlog of patients, sometimes working through the weekends to complete paperwork and develop clinic policies and clinical teamwork plans.

“Giving consistent care is extremely rewarding,” she said. “Especially since my patients were so used to just going to the dentist for emergencies. Getting people back to a regular schedule was wonderful.”

Dr. Dubois added that being the only dentist on the island allows her to keep strengthening her skills beyond the classroom. “Some people get out of dental school and lose a lot of valuable experience,” she said. “This way I’m staying sharp.”

Dr. Dubois has a two-year contract with AKICS. She said that she’s unsure that she’ll stay after her contract expires; despite the rewards of her work, life on an island can be isolating and it’s sometimes difficult to find things to do in a small town. But at least for now, she’s proud that she can offer so much to the residents of Wrangell.

“Dentists always care about people, and care about their health,” she said, “But I wanted to go above and beyond to make a difference.”