Two U.S. Coast Guard medevacs in a single day shine light on a fight that's been waging on for nearly 40 years.
ANCHORAGE – Residents of King Cove say they need a road to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay, but the federal government is standing in the way.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell decided back in December 2013 that, “building a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge would cause irreversible damage not only to the refuge, but to the wildlife that depend on it.”
After four medevacs so far this year, residents of King Cove are asking, “What about the people?”
The U.S. Coast Guard was called for two of those medevacs out of King Cove this month.
One patient was nearly crushed by 600 pounds of fishing equipment. The other patient was having breathing issues. Those two patients were Walter Wilson and his 6-week-old son, Wyatt.
As Wyatt lies in the Alaska Native Medical Center, he lets out a subtle wheeze with each breath. That, according to his father Walter, is a sign of progress.
“Still got the cough and a little groggy through his nose breathing, but he’s doing better and better,” Walter said. “That’s a good thing.”
A very good thing, considering Wyatt actually stopped breathing while waiting six hours for a medevac to Anchorage. That’s where Wyatt would have to go to receive the life-saving care he needed for treatment of his respiratory syncytial virus, an illness that can prove fatal, and nearly did in Wyatt’s case.
Waiting next to Wyatt in King Cove’s primary care clinic is his father Walter, in excruciating pain after 600 pounds of fishing equipment nearly crushed him.
“In the afternoon is when it happened. I got here the morning after,” Walter said. “I just couldn’t do nothing. My hips were out of place until I got here to Anchorage.”
It’s a story out of the Alaska Peninsula that has become far too common, according to King Cove Mayor Henry Mack.
“We’re thankful that we haven’t lost anybody but, my God, we need this road,” Mack said.
Mack has been fighting for the road that would’ve saved Walter and Wyatt and so many others from wasting critical time waiting since the 1970s with little progress.
The road would connect the small community of King Cove to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay, where patients could immediately fly to Anchorage to receive care.
With no road, the Coast Guard is tasked to transport patients.
“They’re gracious men and women who come and help save our people,” Mack said. “If we had a road that we could use to get over to Cold Bay, we didn’t have to have the Walter Jr.s and his son, the Irene Newmans …”
Or Mack’s own grandson, Nick, who was forced to wait seven hours for a medevac while suffering respiratory failure.
“We had to sit with him all night long,” Mack recalls. “You know, you sit there and you watch him try to gasp for air and you’ve just go to hold him close, rub him.”
Setting aside the suffering of the men, women and children of King Cove, Jewell has decided the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge needs protecting more than these residents need that road.
Jewell’s office responded to KTVA’s request to speak with her via email citing her Dec. 23 statement on this decision saying, “I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”
Mack says advocates for the road to Cold Bay are planning to travel to Washington D.C. this coming week to speak with Jewell.
“People really need to know what’s going on,” Mack said. “This is about our lives, our young people’s lives.”
Meanwhile, as Walter and Wyatt heal, they’ll serve as yet another mile marker on the long-awaited road to King Cove.