Diana Redwood: Colon Cancer Warrior

Diana Redwood

Diana Redwood

Diana Redwood is a senior program manager at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium who specializes in colon cancer prevention and a good sense of humor.  She has been known to suit up as a giant red polyp named Polyp Man, wear an apron printed with abdominal organs and travel with an enormous inflatable colon named Nolan to promote colorectal health and prevention.

Redwood grew up in Palmer, but attended Evergreen State College in Washington to receive a degree in Nutrition and Food Studies before pursuing a double masters in Community Nutrition plus Food Policy and Applied Economics at Tufts University in Boston.  She moved back to Alaska in 2004 and took a job at ANTHC working on the EARTH (Education and Research Towards Health) study to analyze the dietary and physical activity patterns of research participants in Native communities around the state.

“We do a lot of stuff like community education and provider education,” said Redwood.  “Basically looking at the things that cause ill health and trying to address them.  We do a lot of different projects in community health services like tobacco prevention, nutrition research, environmental health and so there’s a lot of different pieces that people work on to try and address.  They vary by area, but obviously cancer and heart disease tend to be the leading killers.”

ANTHC maintains a “tumor registry” of cancer prevalence in the Native population and the data revealed a population with double the average rate of colorectal cancer.   Colon cancer is easy to detect and treat with regular colonoscopies and has a 90% survival rate if it is identified in Stage I or Stage II.  Redwood got involved in 2007 and became the senior program manager for the Colorectal Cancer Control Program in 2009.  Aided by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, the program provides community education and promotes prevention through regular screening.

The CRC program is part of the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, but does not receive funding from ANTHC.  Redwood manages a complex portfolio of grants from the CDC, Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute  to provide outreach and education.  Each grant has a different focus and provides a variety of methods to educate the public, identify lifestyle risks like diet and smoking and engineer creative ways to encourage regular screening.  Her office is filled with informational brochures, educational DVD’s, appointment reminder postcards, t-shirts, berry buckets and coffee sleeves printed with messages like, “Get behind your screening, no butts about it.”  Redwood has even authored some of their humorous marketing messages.

“I will say that I’m a poet.  I came up with, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I love my colon and so should you.”  We put that on a lot of the birthday card kits.  The community health aides can use that and have stickers to decorate and send out to people and that’s been very popular.”

Polyp Man makes an appearance at a community health event. (Photo courtesy of Diana Redwood)

Polyp Man makes an appearance at a community health event. (Photo courtesy of Diana Redwood)

Another educational tool is Nolan the Colon, a towering 25 foot inflatable colon that blows up to more than 14 feet tall.  The exhibit was designed by ANTHC and other clinical providers to offer visitors an interactive opportunity to walk through a healthy colon and see how polyps develop into cancer.  Nolan has made appearances all over Alaska and is often accompanied by a community educator who can answer questions and schedule a colonoscopy.  The exhibit was so popular that ANTHC recently purchased a smaller version named Nolan Junior that is six feet long and weighs only 48 pounds for communities with smaller meeting spaces or weight-sensitive flight service.

Education is an important component, but access to care is also critical.   Alaska’s expansive geography presents difficult challenges and patients often have to fly to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage or a community hub like Bethel to receive their colonoscopy.  Redwood has worked closely with regional health providers to implement training and send teams with equipment directly to communities for mini-clinics.  ANTHC’s Epidemiology Center also employs three patient navigators who identify individuals that are coming in for other procedures and help “bundle” services so they can schedule a colonoscopy or mammogram during the same visit.

“At ANTHC, our mission and vision is that Alaska native people are the healthiest people in the world.  To say that’s what we want to achieve is a lot.  But we do a lot of different projects.  We go and we talk to providers.  We travel.  There’s a lot of different pieces.  We’ve started to see a significant decline in incidents, and though it’s not significant quite yet, a downward trend in mortality.  So we are starting to see some of the screening efforts being reflected in the data.”

Despite great geographic, financial and systemic challenges, Diana Redwood’s dedication to public health is unwavering.  At the end of every day she commutes home on her bike feeling proud that her work is slowly beating the ugly adversary of cancer into remission.

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Don Barrington: The Traveling Piano

Don Barrington 2

Don Barrington poses with his camera.

When Don Barrington started The Traveling Piano project he had no idea that photography could cause so many problems with local law enforcement.  But it’s hard to run very fast with a piano so when the Alaska State Troopers, Fairbanks police and UAF campus security showed up at various shooting locations he told them all the same thing: I’m doing a photography project.

The Traveling Piano was conceived between semesters at UAF as a personal photography challenge and completed over three manic days in January of 2012.  After an extensive search he found the perfect piano in a local thrift store and spent more three weeks scouting locations.

“I wanted them very Alaskan and I wanted them very different from each other,” said Barrington.  “I wanted them to tell a very unique series of stories with a different way of approaching aspects that were very Alaskan.”

Like most college students he was long on ambition and short on cash.  When he realized he could only afford three days of trailer rental he decided to shoot the entire project in the equivalent of a long weekend.  He enlisted the help of a friend in the film department to assist with lighting and recruited other friends and family to move the bulky piano around town in sub-zero conditions.

Over the next few days Barrington photographed the piano at eight different locations including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the Tanana River, a local bird sanctuary, a set of train tracks, an ice rink at UAF, a sunset hill near campus, a tunnel at Alaskaland and an abandoned cabin destroyed by fire.

The Pipeline was their first location, but to get the right perspective he had move the piano across a bridge and field from the parking lot at the Fox Visitor’s Center.  The piano was much too heavy to carry so the crew devised a “leapfrog method” of sliding it across the snow with a piece of plywood. 

“I just wanted it by the Pipeline somewhere to make it look as small as possible,” said Barrington.  “I shot it very wide because I thought that was really important to see how big the Pipeline is versus the piano.”

His favorite photo came the second day when they took the piano to the Tenana River.  After two hours of moving the piano down to the river and throwing snow around to give it a “natural look” he was losing light fast and still missing the perfect shot when suddenly a dog musher they saw in the parking lot came racing across the ice.

“We were getting ready to wrap it up and then all of a sudden the dog mushing team comes back.  That was basically luck.  It was a moment unlike any of the other moments because it was spontaneous. I was really happy with that shot and how it played out.”

After printing and mounting the photographs into frames he displayed them at a series of events in Fairbanks where he sold all but one of the prints.  The project was most recently shown in Anchorage this summer for a First Friday event at Moose A La Mode on Fourth Avenue.

Barrington graduated from UAF with a photojournalism degree in May of 2012 and traveled to Australia to work with a group of wedding photographers he met on a study abroad trip.  He moved back to Anchorage a year later to start his own photography business specializing in weddings and portraits while continuing to work on personal projects.

“One of the most important things I learned in photojournalism is capturing a frame that actually tells a story.  One moment that you can capture with one image to tell that story.  I really like that sense of natural moments and I try to find that in all the images I shoot.”

For more information on Don Barrington and his photography, please visit his web site at http://donbarringtonphotography.com/

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Layton Lockett: Adak City Manager

Layton Lockett

Layton Lockett has been Adak’s city manager since 2010.

When Layton Lockett was in grad school his professors asked him to build spreadsheets, design marketing plans and participate in grueling 48 hour management workshops full of thought experiments like, “If you were stranded in a plane crash, what items would you take to survive?”  His classmates made fun of him when he chose Hershey bars and duct tape from the list, but to an Alaskan it just seemed like the best choice.

He is now the city manager of Adak and using the same common sense approach to help the city survive a different kind of crash.  But in a community where 30% of the annual budget goes to utility costs and their largest employer went bankrupt this year he needs a lot more than duct tape and candy bars.

Lockett’s family moved to Alaska in 1998 and he was raised further up the Aleutians in Nelson Lagoon.  He graduated from UAA in 2006 with a degree in Business Administration and began working at a non-profit organization as a tax consultant.  He heard about the city manager job while his mother was working at as a community health aide at the clinic in Adak and he came to visit for Christmas.  He interviewed with the city council and was hired in October 2010.

Since then Lockett has been working to restore financial solvency to the troubled city and find creative ways to lower their power costs.  Adak’s diesel power plant was built in 1964 and inherited from the Navy when the base closed in 1997.  TDX Adak Generating, the local utility, reported that they spent $1.2 million on diesel fuel for the plant in 2012 and charges consumers $1.13 per kilowatt hour for electricity.  The State of Alaska’s Power Cost Equalization program subsidizes $.80/kWh, but actual consumer cost is still $.33/kWh compared to about eight cents in Anchorage.  The PCE program paid out $290,000 for Adak residents last year.

Lockett began investigating wind and hydroelectric options in 2011 and after receiving several grants for alternative energy studies he hired an engineering firm this year to bid on the projects.  Beyond the dam upgrades and wind turbine installation, Adak would also need to modernize their power lines and distribution infrastructure to interface with alternative energy sources.

Adak's public offices, school and health clinic are housed in one building to conserve utilities.

Adak’s public offices, school and health clinic are housed in one building to conserve utilities.

While balancing the books and juggling electric bills he received yet another piece of bad news: Icicle Seafoods was closing the fish plant in Adak after only a year and a half of operation. 

“We’re like, whoa, are you kidding me?  The voters just enacted a raw fish tax and they literally felt like they got slapped in the face.  It’s like, shoot, you didn’t even give us a chance to try.  All of a sudden that turns into the bank being told by the federal government, get rid of it.  Get rid of the stuff.”

When the fish plant went up for public auction the city began to worry that it would be purchased by scrappers who would disassemble the facility and destroy any chance of attracting a new operator.  Without any other industries, Adak’s financial future was at stake and in June the city purchased the plant for $1.8 million. The purchase required shaking some city couch cushions to find enough cash, but the gamble paid off.  In October Adak sold the plant to a newly formed company called Adak Cod Cooperative LLC and hopes they will open in 2014.

Despite holding the city together with duct tape and riding a roller coaster of profit and loss, Lockett says he has learned a lot from the job.  Adak will likely be his last stop on the Aleutians and he plans to move back to Anchorage someday, but he is grateful for all his experiences.

“A true manager or a leader is supposed to have the creativity to get everybody in the room and make them all work together.   Where else could I be going up against a national airline and convincing them… Is there a deal to be worked out?  Or sitting with Trident Seafoods talking to their CEO and working on a million dollar deal.  All these experiences I’ve had…  I mean, I couldn’t get this working at BP.  So this has been very fun.”

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Arenza Thigpen Jr.: Direct Democracy Lobbyist

Arenza Thigpen Jr

Arenza Thigpen Jr. prepares to collect signatures outside a local supermarket.

Arenza Thigpen Jr. is a Direct Democracy Lobbyist. Most people would call him a petitioner or signature gatherer, but after years of working issues and collecting autographs for ballot initiatives he developed a new title to better describe his role in the political process. 

He openly boasts that he has registered more people to vote than anyone else in the State of Alaska and estimates that his all-time record was registering 250 people in one day.  He has personally recruited thousands of new voters and worked tirelessly to educate the public on political issues.

He is so passionate about this responsibility that last year he founded a non-profit organization called the International League of Signature Gatherers.  He conducts regular meetings to promote education, discuss developments in the industry and ensure that his members are being treated fairly.

“We’re the guardians of democracy,” he said.  “Seriously, it’s almost like a gang.”

Thigpen was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, but dreamed of moving to Alaska since he was a teenager.  By the age of 22 he saved enough money to move and has been living in Anchorage for the past twenty years.  His career as a DDL began in early 2000 when he become a Registrar and started working petitions.

“By being involved in this I’ve managed to be an inspiration because people now see that there’s a way out.  They’re sick of legislators making all the decisions and then not telling them about it.  Whereas you’ve got this grass roots operation that gives people a chance to get involved and make a difference.”

He has traveled all over the country working issues from Florida to California, but always maintained residency in Alaska.  His proudest moment as a petitioner was helping to collect enough signatures to require a 2007 vote on the same day airborne shooting ban aimed at strengthening regulations on aerial hunting of wolves and grizzly bears.

Thigpen is currently working a petition to raise the minimum wage in Alaska from $8.75 to $9.75 an hour.

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Rod Perry: Iditarod Ambassador

Rod Perry with his malamute Phoenix.

Rod Perry with his malamute Phoenix.

At the northeast corner of 4th Avenue & E Street in downtown Anchorage a sprawling homemade canopy of polished spruce beams and heavy canvas crowds the busy sidewalk from June until August.  A brightly lettered sign above the canopy encourages visitors to stop and meet Iditarod musher Rod Perry, an adventurous author who ran the first Iditarod in 1973.  For the past five years he has spent his summers serving as Anchorage’s self-appointed Iditarod ambassador.  He greets each visitor with a friendly smile as they examine the books spread between carefully balanced birch logs.

Perry describes himself as a “hopeless romantic and gold rush era junkie”.  He moved to Alaska fifty years ago to make movies and worked his way across the state as an oil worker, commercial fisherman, hunting guide and game biologist.  His first dog team was purchased in the early 1970s for a film called “Sourdough” about an old time Alaskan trapper battling the encroachment of modern civilization and he quickly fell in love with mushing.

He met Iditarod founder Joe Redington through friends in the winter of 1971 during the very early stages of Iditarod planning, though he is careful to explain that he had no involvement in the race before he competed.  “Joe needed mushers.  Back then we might have had three dozen people and nobody knew what they were doing because it had never been done.  In order for us to go out there knowing it was going to be sketchy, incomplete and sometimes nonexistent we had to put people out there that were virtually impossible to kill.”

Perry proved himself among the invincible and placed 17th in the first race after 30 harrowing days on the trail.  He tried again in 1974 and shaved four days from his record to finish 14th.  His final attempt came in 1977 when he placed 19th with a 17 day finish.  He stopped mushing in the late 1980s as he started a family and moved on to other interests, but never lost his passion for the race or the trail.

Rod Perry sits at his booth waiting for visitors to stop by and chat.

Rod Perry sits at his booth waiting for visitors to stop by and chat.

By 2009 Perry had finished the first volume of his book “Trailbreakers: Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod” about the rich gold rush history of the trail.  After it was published he approached the Anchorage Downtown Partnership with the idea of an Iditarod attraction open during the summer where he could sell books, talk to tourists and provide additional visitor information for the city.   

“They didn’t have anything down here celebrating the Iditarod trail,” said Perry.  “How many people come to Alaska?  How many come here and would thrill to some kind of Iditarod encounter?  So I was after them.  Why don’t you have a banner across the street?  Anything.”

Perry’s passionate perspective on the race and unique ability to engage and entertain strangers promised a perfect solution to this gap in tourist topography and the Downtown Partnership soon offered him a spot next to the log cabin at the Anchorage Visitor Information Center.  He remained there for one season before moving to his current location in Bear Square and now hundreds of people from all over the world visit the booth on busy days to listen to his colorful stories and pet his hundred pound Malamute named Phoenix.

“I never did use the dog until this year,” he said.  “I could see that the addition of a big, beautiful malamute doubled what I called my Attention-Attraction Zone.  There’s no amount of signage that I’ve ever had that was worth a tenth as much as having that dog here.”

Rod Perry with his lead dog Fat Albert after the 1974 Iditarod. (Photo courtesy of Bill Devine)

Rod Perry with his lead dog Fat Albert after the 1974 Iditarod. (Photo courtesy of Bill Devine.)

Perry is well-acquainted with the popular appeal of sled dogs.  A sturdy husky named Fat Albert led Perry’s dog team to Nome in both 1973 and 1974.  The comical and high-spirited lead dog was so well-covered by the media that he became a minor national celebrity.  During the 1974 race The National Observer ran stories about him for twelve weeks straight and a 1976 Sports Illustrated article claimed that Fat Albert did for the Iditarod what Babe Ruth did for Yankee Stadium. 

“Who can keep from having their soul stolen by those great sled dogs of the north?” asked Perry.   “People are just in love with dogs.”

For more information on Rod Perry and his Iditarod books, please visit http://rodperry.com/.

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Alex Marqueda: Kids In The Kitchen

In a world where 53% of adults don’t believe they can cook as well as their mothers or grandmothers and 57% of young adults are eating fast food at least once a week, Alex Marqueda is cooking up a plan to defy the odds.   The ambitious owner of Ready Made Dinners on Tudor Road is a self-taught chef whose culinary education began with his grandmother in Mexico City and turned into a delicious career.  He opened the business earlier this year to provide freshly prepared meals that busy families can pick up and cook at home. 

But this Anchorage restaurant offers more than the promise of convenience and healthy meals.  Cooking skills are so important to Marqueda that he started a program called Kids In the Kitchen where he offers small group classes on basic food preparation and nutrition to kids between the ages of six and eighteen.

“Food makes people connect and families need a lot of that,” said Marqueda.  “There’s so much technology.  Ten years ago you would never see a kid with a cell phone because they couldn’t even afford it.  Nowadays you see a four year old who knows how to use an iPod better than his parents, but can he make a sandwich?  Probably not.  So I think that teaching kids how to cook goes beyond just making a meal.  It’s way more than that.”

The classes offer a fun and creative opportunity to experiment with new foods and flavors, but most kids are used to fast food and skeptical of anything that looks unfamiliar.  In order to get them interested in the recipes he begins each session with samples of the meal they will make and discussions about the culture it originated in.

“When they taste something that is healthy for them they reject it because their taste buds are not used to that.  So we don’t tell them what’s in it first.  We let them taste it first, they love it, and then we teach them how you make it.  So it’s a little bit of reverse psychology.”

Marqueda provides a wide variety of ingredients to experiment with and each child has the freedom to build on basic recipes and find out what they like.  By the time they’re done cooking the miniature chefs are thrilled to go home and show off their new skills.

“They love it because they can do it here and know that they’re probably not going to be allowed to do that at home.  And the parents love that there is a place where they’ll be able to do that and they won’t have to clean up.”

For more information on Ready Made Meals or Kids In The Kitchen, visit Facebook or readymademeals.com.

Interviews With Alaskans: Podcast Interview


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