Martha Flores

Caring for Her People

Martha Flores (right) with her daughter Teresa Flores

Three generation of Martha Flores' family, Yupik/Aleut, have cared for their people in a remote area of Alaska. Flores has been a PA for 15 years in Bethel, Alaska. Martha's mother was a medical aide and Martha's daughter, Teresa, is also a PA.

Born and raised in Mountain Village, Flores has been providing care at the
Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital since 1991. The hospital serves 56 villages in the Delta, including Mountain Village. During her first 13 years at the hospital, Flores worked in the outpatient clinic as the primary health care provider for many people. Although Flores has been working in the emergency department for the past three years, some of her former patients, still regard her as their primary provider. “They call me ‘the doctor’ or ‘our Native doctor’,” says Flores. “I tell them that I’m not a doctor, but they disregard that. They know that I’m not a doctor of medicine, but I think that in their eyes, I am their doctor.”

“I get tickled by the Elders. As soon as they see me they get a big smile on their face and start talking in their language, Yupik. I grew up speaking English. I heard Yupik around me but it was the Yukon dialect, not the Kuskokwim dialect. My mother is an Aleut from Kodiak. My dad is full Yupik. My mother only spoke English to us, because she was still learning the Yupik language. My father spoke both English and Yupik, but he mostly spoke English at home.

“Thanks to my patients, I’ve learned to speak Yupik better. They’ve patiently corrected me. I can understand what they’re telling me, but I can’t carry on a conversation with them entirely in Yupik. I always use a translator because I want to make sure that they know exactly what’s going on with their bodies and what the medicines I give them are for and what the medicines will do. I want to be sure that the patient gets the best care.

“I can imagine what many people go through when they come in to the hospital from their villages. In the villages, everyone speaks their language and eats their native food. When they come into Bethel, many of them are timid and nervous. They don’t always understand what people tell them. I get discouraged when I ask them what a provider told them and they say, ‘I don’t know.’ So I use a translator to make sure that they understand me.”

A Family Working Together

Flores remembers her childhood, “My mom, who was a medical aide, had the coolest job. Her work was mysterious. She’d be called out. All that she would say was that she had to go and help a sick person.”

After graduating from high school, Flores left her village to go to nursing school. She didn’t complete her training, though, because she fell in love, got married and began raising a family.

Ten years later, she landed a job as a community health aide in Mountain Village. For four years she worked as a health aide, but she was restless. “I always knew that I could offer my people more than I was offering at the time. I also knew that in order to better provide for my children I would have to attain further education.”

Community health aides, like Flores, receive basic health aide training through the
Community Health Aides Program (CHAP) program that is conducted by physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners. Flores was impressed with the PAs. One of them, David Norcross, a Native PA, told her that she was “PA material”.

Convinced that she wanted to become a PA, Flores applied to and was accepted by the
MEDEX Northwest PA Program. She traveled by herself to Seattle location of the program. Six weeks later she was joined by her husband and four children, ranging in age from 18 months to 14 years. The year in Seattle was challenging, especially because of her time away from her family, but Flores remembers, “I had decided that this was what I wanted. Nothing was going to turn me back. Besides, my husband was there to support me through the training.”

When it came time for Flores to do her clinical rotations, the family drove their truck back up to Alaska. Most of her rotations were to be in Bethel, so the family decided to make Bethel their homing ground. When she graduated from PA School, Flores accepted a job at the hospital in Bethel where she still is happily working.

Listen to Advice

Flores tells potential PAs: “Don’t lose sight of your goals. Strive to do the best you can in your school years. Take the time to relax and look at your goals from all perspective. Be open to suggestions. People like to give advice. Listen to the advice. You don’t have to use all the advice that you’re given but take what you can use. Read as much as you can. If you’re not sure of the meaning of a word or concept, take the time to look them up.”
This article was originally printed in the Winter 2007 issue of Winds of Change.