Leaping into life on the nation’s last frontier

Gio Villanueva celebrates on the summit of Mount Edgecumbe, with Mount Fairweather in the distance.

sitka Gio Villanueva’s energy almost literally sparks out of the phone, even though it’s 7:30 a.m. in Alaska and the sun won’t rise for at least another hour. His obvious drive is an asset in an area where the environment presents as many challenges as do his patients’ conditions. “From a patient point of view, I need to do the best possible job I can do given the resources we have,” says Villanueva, D.P.T.’07, ATC, a staff physical therapist at Mount Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, AK, a facility of the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC). “You can’t just send someone down the road for additional or specialized care.”

That’s due in part because Sitka’s main road system entails “seven miles of road going north and south and seven miles going east-west,” he says. “In many places, the main transportation is not a car; it’s a boat or plane.”

Alaska’s fifth largest city (population: approximately 9,000), Sitka sits on Baranof Island on the outer coast of the state’s Inside Passage. In addition to the inpatient acute care he provides at the hospital, Villanueva offers outpatient care in the 18 Native American communities that form SEARHC, a nonprofit tribal health consortium.

“We don’t have an orthopedic doctor on staff. The specialists rotate, some every four months,” he says.

“Patient education is crucial.”

So is understanding the demands and realities of patients’ lives. “A lot of people can’t afford to get off work. If they’re injured at the height of salmon fishing season, they have to be able to keep going,” he says. “You have to look at what you can do when you know the patient can’t come to therapy as often as you’d like.”

That gives preventive care an important role. In 2011, Villanueva and his colleagues established a sports clinic at Mount Edgecumbe High School, where he meets with student athletes every Monday after work. “If I find something wrong, I refer them to their primary care provider,” he says. “We catch shoulder, knee and hip injuries, and we’ve even caught some infectious states.

“The school is really happy the clinic exists,” he adds. “There’s a bonus in making sure students are healthy.”

Gio Villanueva’s attire as a physical therapist can include a fur hat.
Gio Villanueva’s attire as a physical therapist can include a fur hat.

Expanding his horizons physically, professionally and personally was what Villanueva was seeking when he moved to Alaska more than two years ago. The Los Angeles native had been working in San Antonio, TX, when a colleague planted the idea of relocating in the nation’s largest state geographically but least densely populated. He intentionally timed his interview when the Sitka season was “dark, windy and rainy.” Now he loves living in what he calls “one of the hidden jewels of Alaska.”

“The beauty, the outdoor recreation, trekking up the mountains – it’s been a wonderful ride so far,” he says. “Eighty-five percent of Alaska are public lands for us to explore, pop a tent and experience.”

The experience, he notes, includes understanding the region’s culture and history. Its Native American tribes include the Tlingit Indians, who have lived continuously in Sitka for more than 50 centuries. The city also was the cultural and political hub of Russian America in the early 1800s; Sitka is where Russia officially transferred the Territory of Alaska to the United States on Oct. 18, 1867.

“No Native Americans were involved in that transition. You have to be sensitive toward that history,” he says. “To enjoy yourself and be successful here, you have to assimilate, integrate and respect and understand others, which has always been my mantra as a physical therapist. It’s all about the patient.”

That assimilation and respect go beyond his practice. “I was looking for the spirituality aspects, the family aspects, respect for the elderly and their lessons,” Villanueva says. “I’m Filipino-American, and I see that in my culture and in others I’ve traveled to. It makes you self-reflect on what makes you truly happy in life. Your value system changes.

“Growing up in LA, I was exposed to Beverly Hills. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this has opened up new ways of living for me,” he adds. “I’m just glad to be here.”

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