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Willa Ashenfelter and Irene Aukongak, Part 3
Willa Ashenfelter, Irene Aukongak

This is the continuation of an interview with Willa Ashenfelter and Irene Aukongak on September 13, 2005 with Karen Brewster at the Norton Sound Health Corporation, Village Health Services office in Nome, Alaska. Willa and Irene were interviewed together because they were health aides in nearby villages during the same time period, worked closely together, went to training together, and are close friends. They traveled to Nome for the interview. They have great fun remembering their younger days and telling stories together, each adding to the memories of the other. In this third part of a three part interview, Willa and Irene talk about how they met and became friends, the stresses and rewards of caring for people and being a community health aide, and the joys of successfully treated a patient. They also talk about dealing with accidents and emergencies, how the types of medical problems and communication methods have changed over the years, and effects of an increase in suicides.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2004-17-16_PT.3

Project: Community Health Aide Program
Date of Interview: Sep 13, 2005
Narrator(s): Willa Ashenfelter, Irene Aukongak
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, University of Alaska Health Programs
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
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Irene talks about the clinic that was named for her and how she felt at the opening ceremony, and Willa and Irene reminisce about their husbands.

How Willa and Irene met and got to know each other.

Caring for people and how helping them is stressful, but rewarding.

The joy of succeeding even when others did not believe in them.

How the problems they saw as health aides changed over the years.

Some comments on problems like suicides in the villages and dealing with emergencies and stress.

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


IRENE:  I didn't want to keep working while she closed.  KAREN:  Okay.  I understand that the clinic in Golovin is named after you?   IRENE:  Yes.  KAREN:  Will you talk about that a little bit?  IRENE:  Oh.  They worked on that -- they started working on it last year, in October, I believe.  And they finished by -- towards spring anyway.  It took them almost a year, they finished.  And they were picking two names.  Either Irene L. Aukongak Clinic, or Aukongak Clinic, but then they went around, you know, checking and here they chose Irene Aukongak Tagoomaq, Eskimo name.   KAREN:  Eskimo name. IRENE:  I have three Eskimo names, but I told Shawn and he picked Tagoomaq.  I have three Eskimo names.  KAREN:  What are your other Eskimo names? IRENE:  There is Ooksuklaq, Quiguaq -- no, Quiguaq?  What's Northern Lights in Eskimo?  WILLA:  Yeah, that sounds like it.  IRENE:  Yeah, Quiguaq.  And Tagoomaq, those three.  And that Tagoomaq was chosen. KAREN:  That's nice.     IRENE:  It means like Tagoomaq, its up, you know, it stays up, or something.  And it was dedicated -- WILLA:  I went -- we went down for your -- IRENE:  October? WILLA:  -- down for your dedication.  IRENE:  Was it?  WILLA:  Seemed like in October.  IRENE:  It was cold.  Yeah, I think it was in October.   WILLA:  Before the snow.   IRENE:  '04?  WILLA:  Uh-hum.  IRENE:  Before the snow.  Anyway, there was a lot of people that went down.  And I had a few elders up with me.  And a lot of people were there.  And there was first time I ever did a ribbon cutting.  That was exciting.  That was nice.   KAREN:  How does that make you feel to have a clinic named after you?   IRENE:  I was so -- I couldn't believe it at first, until it started, you know, I -- oh, no, what am I going to say.  But I did.  You know.  I did -- I -- after we went to the new clinic, everybody toured, you know, boy, that looked nice.  Everybody toured and we received caps and stuff.  And then we went up to the other building, EDA building, new -- it's another new building, and we went up there for our potluck -- yeah, little potluck.  And little ceremony, talk, speeches and stuff.  I know I wrote a little speech.  And it was so good, I didn't know that the corporation donated ground to build the clinic on.  KAREN:  Wow.  IRENE:  And not knowing that it was going to be named after me.  It's so nice.  KAREN:  And was your husband still alive? IRENE:  No, he was done.  I was hoping he was still alive to see how.  That would have made it so emotional.  But I was glad she was with me.  KAREN:  You both have lost your husbands?  IRENE:  Yeah.  WILLA:  I lost mine in 19 -- January 23, 1996.  IRENE:  And mine September 30, 1903 -- no, 2003.  KAREN:  2003.  IRENE:  2003.  WILLA:  But those guys, they really supported us.  IRENE:  Yeah, if it wasn't for their support, you know, I don't think we would, you know, we would make it.   KAREN:  And your husband's name was?  IRENE:  Sig.  Sigfried, but they called him Sig.  KAREN:  And yours was George? WILLA:  Mine was George.  IRENE:  We used to do things together all the time.  WILLA:  Yeah, we would go camping.  IRENE:  Yeah, camping, and do things with our kids.  KAREN:  And what kind of work -- you said your husband was one of the airline agents?   WILLA:  Agents, and also her husband.  IRENE:  Both of them.  WILLA:  They had -- if they complained, it was usually about us or their agents.  IRENE:  When I retired, my husband used to say you should -- you should go back to work.  We wanted to go here and there.  Why don't you go back to work.  WILLA:  George used to say, too, he used to don't know -- I don't know what I'm going to do when I have a couple days off in a row.  He used to be so glad when I'd go back to work.   IRENE:  Yeah, when we have long weekends like you, we used to want to go places every day.  Yeah. WILLA:  And we would go down -- George and I would go down to falls.  IRENE:  Yeah, they took us places.  They complained a little, but they took us.  KAREN:  Yeah.

KAREN:  You were each married for a long time, huh. IRENE:  Yeah.  So.  WILLA:  George and Sig were just like brothers, they were really close.   IRENE:  Yeah, they were just -- her and I were just like -- people always make this mistake, they call me Willa. WILLA:  I'm correcting the names.  IRENE:  Is Willa your sister?  Even Rose.  KAREN:  So how long have you -- you met through your health aide work or did you know each other before that?  IRENE:  I married her cousin.  My husband was my cousin -- I mean, her cousin.  KAREN:  Yeah.  WILLA:  And I knew her in Edgecumbe when she was at the LPN train -- at the LPN training.  I knew when they first started going together. IRENE:  When we started dating.  WILLA:  She -- they used to sit so far apart.  KAREN:  So you were in school down there at the same time?  WILLA:  I was there for three years, 1954 to 56, and then I transferred to Unalakleet and graduated from there.  KAREN:  So for high school.  WILLA:  Yeah.  And then I got married in 1959.   IRENE:  My husband used to tell me, before him, you know, girls used to line up on one side for the chow line and the boys on the other side.  They would say them boys used to look at girls.  He called Fred Couching, his friend, now there's a girl I'd like to meet.  And -- and he's going to marry me.  And, oh.  He really had his mind set.  Oh.  And I never -- and I never, you know, go to the dances and stuff.  And one time there was a girl, Lena Anderson, and she said, Irene, there's a -- there's somebody that asked for you.  I said, what's his name?  She said, I think it's Sigfried.  I said, I don't know no -- I don't even know Sigfried.  Oh, never mind, Irene.   WILLA:  And he moved to Golovin, do you remember which year?  Since then you've been there.  IRENE:  January. WILLA:  She's really from Golovin.   IRENE:  I got married on December 29th, that same year, fifty -- 1955?  WILLA:  Uh-hum.  IRENE:  I was working at ANS down Anchorage.  Both of us were.  And came up January.  WILLA:  1956.  IRENE:  '56.  Yeah, '56.  Since then, we had to come up because my father-in-law was in the hospital with TB.  WILLA:  Uh-hum.  IRENE:  And we had to come up and be with his mom because she was all alone.  WILLA:  Home alone.  IRENE:  And we had to help his brother with the reindeer herd.  So that's how -- I sure loved Golovin.  WILLA:  She is really from Golovin.  KAREN:  Yeah, sounds like it.  WILLA:  They were having a retirement thing for her, oh, for us here, and the same girl from Golovin came up and gave her talk about the school -- the person she looked up the most was when she was growing up was Irene.  IRENE:  Oh, Jan -- or Jennifer?  WILLA:  Yeah.  She remind me that Sig brought her up.  So I was definite, I got up to talk, I really thanked Sig for bringing her up because she turned out to be my closest friend.  IRENE:  She found me up this way.  Yeah.  My mother-in-law was such a nice person, too.  She used to -- KAREN:  Well, you had mentioned Mary as a mentor.  WILLA:  Oh, Martha.  Rita's mom.  KAREN:  As a mentor.  And what about you, Irene, were there any people who sort of inspired you, mentored you along the way?  IRENE:  I think sometimes I used to get real down and out and my mother-in-law used to, you know, talk to me, and you know, and try to lift my spirits up.  She's one of them.  And another person, too, was Maggie Olson.  She was our store keeper. She was another one that used to talk to me, you know.  She's kind of like -- she took over the church after my father-in-law died.  So my father-in-law was a -- what they call lay minister.  So.   KAREN:  For what church?  IRENE:  Covenant Church.  WILLA:  Is the tape off there?  KAREN:  No, it's on.  WILLA:  Oh, it is.  KAREN:  It's still on.   IRENE:  And Maggie Olson.  And new laughter.  We're still together.  WILLA:  It seems like we became really good friends after -- after I started working as a health aide.  IRENE:  When we started training.  WILLA:  And my kids, one time the phone rang at home, my youngest son answered the phone, and he was calling from one end of the house to the other, mom, it's your bestest friend.  IRENE:  It's good to have, you know, friends, best friend you could talk to, and you know.  KAREN:  Yeah.  IRENE:  Say anything.   KAREN:  Especially given the kind of work that you did.   IRENE:  Yeah.  Yeah.  And we can keep, you know, to ourselves.  KAREN:  Yeah.  IRENE:  That's what some of the ladies should do, you know.  I'm -- I'm sure they do have, you know, friends, close friends that they could talk to.

WILLA:  I used to call her.  She didn't call me and I know she had a really tough case, I used to call her and ask her how she's doing.  And she would talk and tell me.  Sometimes we would cry a little bit.   IRENE:  I even used to call that, what's that Norton Sound.  They do 24 hours.  WILLA:  Oh, yeah, that ear -- IRENE:  Yeah, they said you could call them any time about your problems.  KAREN:  Like a crisis time.  IRENE:  I called them a few times, especially when I was going through -- I was starting to get that -- when I had two cancer patients to care for.  WILLA:  I didn't know that was -- IRENE:  When one of them called me, I said, no matter what time of day or night they go, I was starting to feel like I was going to get that some kind of attack.  I used to -- you know.  One time I was getting that way, I heard snow machine, in she walks.  She walked in and fixed me up.  There I was.  KAREN:  So what has it meant for each of you to have been a health aide?   IRENE:  You know, like you got to know more people and close.  And now, to me, I could, you know, like -- I don't know.  Just the closeness.  And even them little kids always call me grandma.  Grandma.  They used to call us grandma and grampa, you know, even if they weren't our blood kids, but that was nice.  So.  And when them kids were leaving me after Sig died, they were leaving me, and I was kind of feeling like what am I going to do, what am I going to do.   And they talked to me and -- and I think Myna Jean, she always talked to Irene and Myrna, and then some of the people there, and mom, they told me they were going to take care of you.  Don't worry.  People are going to take care of you.  You took care of them.  And they. WILLA:  And it worked.  IRENE:  And they say you took care of them and it's their turn to take care of you.  Oh, that make me feel, you know, you get what you did in return.  WILLA:  There was a young lady in the village that really helped because she lost her husband.  When she was young.  IRENE:  The one that's named after me, Irene.   WILLA:  She ended up really helping you.  IRENE:  Yeah, she was real close, she sure helped me.  Even her kids.  Sure helped me.  She know how I felt.  WILLA:  And her daughter wrote you just -- wrote you such a nice -- it was such a grown-up sounding card.  IRENE:  Yeah.  KAREN:  And Willa, what about you?  What has it meant to you personally to have been a health aide?  WILLA:  I think the entire time I was a health aide, was a learning time.  I don't think I ever quit learning something.  It was something I really enjoyed.  I think sometimes it pushed me beyond what I thought I could do.  One time I came -- I used to come to Nome for their CMEs, and one year I didn't come.  And the year I didn't come to the association, they elected me president.  And I kept thinking, I couldn't be, there's no way I will ever be a president.  No one's going to let me.  And my husband then was a chairman of -- he was a chairman of a couple boards, but he gave me advice and told me, you'll be sitting there and it's -- it will be your job to listen.  And for you not to take -- for me not to take sides, but to listen to all different sides.  And let them have their say.  And don't -- don't take any sides, just let them decide what's best.  That was kind of what I did.  We ended up having an association meeting in Shishmaref.  And I found out the people in Shishmaref are really nice.  I really enjoyed my stay there.  And I ended up feeling besides a learning thing, it was -- I found out it was something I could do.  But there was -- before that, there was no way am I ever going to chair a meeting.  IRENE:  It's like ongoing thing now.  WILLA:  Yeah, it was always something -- we always learned something.  IRENE:  Something new every time we come in for CME, there's always something new, a change.  A change, some changes to better, try to better.

KAREN:  Yeah, it sounds like you both enjoyed the work.   IRENE:  Uh-hum.  Yeah.  I did.  WILLA:  And we worked away from our bosses.  No one was in the village to make sure we got to work on time, but because I lived in the village, I went to work on time, I was like at work all the time, and I know, Irene, you were like that.  They had longer hours in Golovin, they went to work earlier, at 8:00.  IRENE:  I even got off earlier.  Uh-hum.  So we could make supper.   KAREN:  So is -- what was it about it that you liked?   WILLA:  Working with people.  I really enjoyed that.  IRENE:  You learn from them, too.  Yeah.  WILLA:  Yeah.  The people in the village are really -- I don't know -- I think a lot of them were thankful we were there, and they let us know.  IRENE:  And there's some people that get mean with you, but you just leave them alone, you know.  You just -- I never would get mad at them, even if they were -- there was one lady that told me, you know, her son never gets seen by specialty for a while, and every time she see the doctor, field doctor, she would take her up there and they would -- they would tell her that he's on the list, you know, they would go down the line.  He's on the list.  And that year, that fall, oh, she went up to the clinic real mad, and Sharon, Sharon was there, too.  My coworker.  Boy, she came in real mad.  And when she went out, Sharon went out, and she told Sharon that Irene is too old to work in the clinic, she should just quit.  You know.  Like that.  Sharon came and she told me, I felt real bad.  But I started thinking, gee, she's just angry and, you know, just saying anyway, he's on the list to be seen, you know, next time, Sharon told her that, too.  So maybe how many months later they sent him down to have his tonsils taken out.  And that same day when I went into the Post Office, she -- that lady came up to me and she apologized, gave me a big hug, boy, I felt so good.  And she sure apologized.  She even want to cry, she said she -- she didn't mean to.  And now, to this now, she's really nice.  First time I ever had that.  It hurt my feelings, but you know, I was still working and I -- I was going to stay on, nobody's going to tell me to quit.  I quit when I want to quit.  Like I told you about my instructor at Mount Edgecumbe, she was this Army type looking lady, real skinny, she was in the Army before and walked too -- she was our instructor, she was kind of strict.  Towards the end, I just -- I used to study real hard, tried to study because I went just through 8th grade.  So I tried to study.  When it was getting close to our test time, she came up to me, she said, Miss Peterson, I don't think you're ever going to make it.  You know.  My -- I don't think you're going to pass.  Oh, I felt so -- but you know, I -- I didn't want to answer verbally, so I answered her inside.  I -- that's what you think.  I'm going to make it.  I felt like, you know, that's what you think.  I'm going to make it.  I, you know, talked inside.  And I really started studying.  And I made it.    KAREN:  She did.  IRENE:  I passed my test.  Oh, my goodness, I was so happy, I was so happy I could fly around.  WILLA:  She called me one time really happy and she told me, I passed my GED.  IRENE:  I took my GED, too.  WILLA:  And she passed it.   IRENE:  And wow, I surprised myself.  Really.  WILLA:  We would come in for EMT 2, and she would be so happy when she passed.  She would even read certain -- Michael wouldn't -- couldn't get over it.   IRENE:  We used to get real silly.  When I get so happy, I always even, you know, so happy.  KAREN:  That's great.

KAREN:  Well, is there anything else that you guys can think of you wanted to talk about that we haven't covered?  It's been a long day.  You're probably tired.  IRENE:  I'm sure a lot of ladies, or health aides, running to a lot of plane crashes, severe accidents, do, there was some plane crashes in my day.  WILLA:  And they were all near Golovin, too.  KAREN:  So you didn't have to deal with any plane crashes?   WILLA:  Not me, my mom did.  IRENE:  I did, there was one lady, a pregnant lady that died, her neck broke.  And there was a little boy in the plane.  Got killed.  Then there was the pilot and they survived.  Kathy's sister.  WILLA:  And the pilot.  IRENE:  The pilot, yeah, they survived.  They got broken ankles.  Boy, it was so -- we sure wanted to find those people.  It was kind of -- WILLA:  And the weather was -- the weather was really down.  IRENE:  Down -- there was a doctor here, I mean at Golovin.  She tried to help us to search, be the search and rescue.  I went with my husband, too.  I didn't want to stay home.  It's an eerie, eerie sounding when you hear that ELT.  KAREN:  Oh, you hear the beacon going off?  IRENE:  Yeah, that's what -- even on the radio, you hear it on the radio.  You hear it.  WILLA:  It makes you -- IRENE:  Donnie had one.  We heard it at the house before.  We would get closer, louder, and then it would go away, then he would go back in and follow up.  Here it was right about what they call Amaktoolik Lake (phonetic), there on the side.  They said that -- they said that the surviving people said they could see our lake, the lights.  But then the small thing was a little sleep.   WILLA:  People in White Mountain, White Mountain and Golovin, they are -- they are not that far apart, and we know everybody in Golovin.  IRENE:  Whenever something happens, they all -- they all get together.  WILLA:  Yeah.  IRENE:  Search and rescue.  KAREN:  I was wondering, too, you both were health aides for so long, you saw change in the kinds of things you were seeing people for, like, you know, there was a change in the amount of cancer or suicides or accidents, and how that changed your work as health aides.  WILLA:  Seemed like White Mountain, one of the changes was -- and maybe it's not the same, we didn't have as many kinds of patients as when we first started.  My son-in-law died from cancer, and he chose to be at home.  He -- he didn't choose.  So my daughter took care of him.  And for that, I really looked up to my daughter.  She took care of him the whole year.  She didn't sleep very well.  His family was from Koyuk, they come up and stay and help with the -- my daughter and care of their brother.  And I really -- I really was thankful for that.  KAREN:  And is this the daughter who was a health aide?   WILLA:  No.  This is my eldest daughter.  But she took care of her husband.  And he -- he did die at home.  KAREN:  And so you're saying there's more cancer now than when you started?  WILLA:  There was no cancer when we first started.   IRENE:  When I first started, there was none.  No cancer.  But there was a lot of sexually transmitted.  WILLA:  Yeah, that.   IRENE:  But then it got -- it got good.   KAREN:  It got lower?  IRENE:  Lower, yeah.  With treatments and stuff.  Education.  Yeah.

KAREN:  And I'm sure it varies from village to village.  I know some villages have had lots of problems with suicide and alcohol problems.  IRENE:  We had -- at one time, we had a lot of suicides.  Like a chain reaction.  KAREN:  And that must be hard.  IRENE:  A lot at the same time.  WILLA:  We have had some couple at White Mountain.  And those are really hard.  IRENE:  You know families, one time news -- news -- news reporter came, went to Golovin, wanted to -- what they call it?  KAREN:  Story?  IRENE:  Story, but that family didn't want it.  They didn't want it, nothing to do with that news reporter.  They didn't.  You know, they didn't get mad but they told him no.  And that reporter was nice.  He didn't do anything.   KAREN:  Yeah.  So it sounds like the job -- did the job get harder as you had to deal with these different kinds of things?  WILLA:  I think the older I got and the more -- the more I was on call, it just got too much.  I finally called Irene and told her I couldn't take it anymore.   IRENE:  Yeah.  One time you were -- your granddaughter got hurt, she broke her -- WILLA:  Yeah.  IRENE:  I was so -- I don't know, I was just down.  I was dead.  The doctor didn't want to listen to what I was saying.  You know, after we have heard that they break a leg up here, they could hemorrhage and die.  WILLA:  We know all the -- IRENE:  When I knew that she had a broken femur, she had a broken -- I knew because when I let her dad pull her leg, she would -- she got better.  And I asked the doctor that was on call, I asked him, should I put a -- you know, a splint. WILLA:  What you call it, one of those air -- IRENE:  Air tractions.  He said, no, no, you don't have to put one on.  But I said it's definitely, definitely broken.  Still, he wouldn't let me do it.  I figured I'd just do it myself.  And he wouldn't send a plane.  But then I, you know, keep calling, keep calling, and finally those EMT people came.  You know.  WILLA:  I was, too.  This was in the evening.  IRENE:  Evening.  WILLA:  Dr. Donnie was in White Mountain, he picked up -- IRENE:  You and Louanne. WILLA:  Me and, yeah, my granddaughter, my daughter.  And he took us all to -- IRENE:  Let me tell you, I took a lot of Malox or Mylanta.  WILLA:  She told me -- she told me to take that.  When things quiet down, she called me, she said, come here.  So I followed her and she took me to her office where it was quiet, she said she sat down, you should take my blood pressure.   IRENE:  After things were done, I felt my blood pressure make just like it was up.  I could feel that.  WILLA:  She had -- she had Mylanta.  IRENE:  She started laughing at me, she said around my lips was Mylanta.  I didn't care, I felt that -- like that I was on heavy tension because of what could happen, you know, after we learned.  WILLA:  My granddaughter wanted her grandma, so maybe her husband was there until I got --  IRENE:  Uh-huh, yeah.  So afterwards, I just laughed.  I was so relieved when these people picked her up, I didn't want her to stay overnight.   Like that -- oh, I forgot about that snow machine accident on Valentines Day, remember?  That boy from Elim?  WILLA:  Oh, yeah.  They were traveling.   IRENE:  Internal.  He had internal -- WILLA:  Injuries.   IRENE:  They had internal, but they let him walk.  Oh, my.   WILLA:  And he died on the plane from Golovin to here.   IRENE:  Yeah, he died on the plane.  He was good while he was at the clinic because he was never moved, I didn't move him.  We kept taking his hemoglobin, his oxygen, his blood pressure, checked his stomach.  You know.  (Inaudible.)  Maybe when they start moving him.   WILLA:  Yeah, he died then.  KAREN:  Well, maybe -- IRENE:  Maybe just the -- KAREN:  Well, maybe we should call it a day, and I'll do the interview with Rita before -- IRENE:  Yeah.  Oh, it's after four o'clock.  I can't stop, though.  We still got oodles of --