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“Besides her work as a dedicated and resourceful medical practitioner, Nancy Elliott Sydnam, is a pilot and a poet, a hunter and gatherer, and an empathetic observer of human nature,” UAA news release, April 16, 2013, regarding Sydnam and her presentation of her book, Sideways Rain, 20 years of medicine, music, and good-luck landings in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands of Alaska.
Another called her, “. . . a true Renaissance woman, an outstanding medical doctor for over 50 years; private pilot; hunter, fisher, dog trainer; writer and poet; musician; and mentor to many, especially young women,” Gretchen T. Bersch, a former patient and long-time family friend.
Born January 20, 1929 and raised on a family farm in Lynden, Washington with an older and a younger sister, Sydnam married her high school sweetheart. Harold Sydnam called “Syd,” worked for Pacific Northern Airlines as a dispatcher and was transferred to Anchorage, Alaska. Unlike many women of her era she was not upset, she was thrilled, a dream come true. The two married between her junior and senior years at medical school at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She then went straight into her one year internship at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. Following her internship she moved permanently to Alaska in 1955 beginning her five and half decades of practicing family medicine in Alaska.
Growing up in Washington on a family farm there were few heroes for women. From a very early age, she wanted to be a pilot like Amelia Earhart and was heartbroken at eight when Earhart went missing. Sydnam confirmed her love of flying at 15 when she got a free flying lesson by buying a $75 war bond. Between pregnancies she eventually got her land and sea ratings. Merrill Field in Anchorage is where she received her private pilot’s license. She laughs when telling the stories of not being able to fly when she was pregnant with her third child, Bruce, because the stick kept hitting her big belly.
Her love affair with the Alaska Bush came in 1961 when she joined Dr. Milo Fritz and his wife who was an RN, in providing medical services, primarily tonsillectomies and adenoid surgery to the people in villages along the Yukon, Koyukuk and Innoko Rivers plus Venetie above the Arctic Circle on the Chandalar River. The American Cancer Society sponsored Sydnam to perform Pap smears and breast and pelvis exams to the women. This was the 60s and to look as professional as possible, both Betsy Fritz and Sydnam wore skirts and cotton stockings. Sydnam also wore her white doctor coat which she continued to do throughout her career.
Because the medical team believed the entire village population could learn from them they allowed everyone to watch the surgeries, selecting volunteers to be surgical assistants, scrub the instruments and sit with the patients afterwards. The team felt that the Native people always saw government agencies come into the villages and doing things “for” and “to” them and not “with” them. Most of the assistants were young women who did not have much formal education, probably not above the sixth grade, but they were eager to help and learn.
The Panhandle of Alaska was not left out of Sydnam’s medical practice career. She and three children joined Syd in 1967 in Juneau, after he had become an Alaska State Trooper and was transferred there. During the next five years, she slowed down and worked only part time, spending her off hours with her children fishing, hiking, mountain climbing and Dungeness crabbing. She would send the children to school and with the family’s black lab Max go duck hunting in the wetlands very close to her home.
They all moved back to Anchorage in 1972, now with four children. Sydnam soon divorced. She moved from her Sand Lake home to a quiet neighborhood downtown close to the two large hospitals where she worked. She opened her own private family medical practice by sharing office space with another doctor, Claire Renn, an obstetrician/gynecologist. She thrived, and soon the office expanded with two more family practitioners. But adventure called in 1979, she and her three boys (Claire was out of the house by then) went to Kenya, East Africa where Sydnam was a volunteer doctor for three months in a Quaker hospital in a small village near Kisumu.
Sydnam was enjoying her busy family practice providing cradle to grave care to as many three generations of families. “They came in for school exams, then college exams, when they married, and when their children needed care. It was very rewarding for me to provide continuity of care,” she said to Sandi Sumner who wrote Women Pilots of Alaska. But she was becoming very disenchanted with the increasing role of insurance companies in dictating medical conditions, what drugs would be covered, and how long a patient could stay in the hospital. The charm was being eroded.
Don Hudson, an emergency room doctor, was also in charge of coordinating the rotation of physicians to the Iliuliuk Clinic on Unalaska Island on the Aleutian Chain. He approached Sydnam about being a part of the rotation team. These doctors not only practiced medicine but supervised physician’s assistants. Sydnam had supervised PA’s in her practice as part of the WAMI program so that part did not faze her. Dr. Hudson promised that the practice would be varied and interesting and the travel and weather would be interesting, too. In her book Sideways Rain, she says, she “heard my paternal grandfather whisper from his wagon on the Mullen Trail . . . ‘You can do it. Just figure out how.’“
After working part-time in her own practice and flying out to the Aleutians for a year, Sydnam sold her practice to her two associates in 1989 and went to work solely for the clinic in Dutch Harbor.
For the next five years she spent her time at the Unalaska clinic serving the largest fishing port in the United States for a scheduled two weeks a month. The medical services she provided were indeed varied. Most of the patients were from the fishing industry, the canneries and the boats that would call in explaining the medical emergency and saying they were headed for shore and provided the weather would let them, they’d be there in a specific number of hours. The rest of the patients would, of course, come from the people of the community. Among the various medical services provided were vasectomies, the male birth control surgeries, which Sydnam said made some of the recipients very nervous.
In 1993, after her contract with Iliuliuk Clinic was completed she was contacted by the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association about being the itinerant doctor to the Pribilofs, St. Paul, St. George, plus Dutch Harbor, Atka, Adak, Umnak Islands, and Nicholski village. These villages ranged in population from 32 to several hundred people. From then until 2010, on Sydnam’s 81st birthday, she was the medical provider to these villages with the assistance of PA’s and nurse practitioners.
Prior to closing her Anchorage practice and in the process of raising her children, Sydnam’s niece Sarah had been playing the cello but wanted to sell it and suggested that her son Ben might be interested in it. He played for a couple of years but decided basketball was more interesting. Now in her 50’s, Sydnam decided to learn to play the cello. She became quite accomplished joining the Anchorage Civic Orchestra. Also her cello became her companion on many of her trips to Aleutians much to the delight of the children as well as adults living out there.
Tragedy struck when in 1999 her oldest child, her only daughter Claire, 42, died from complications of surgery in Washington state. She was also the mother of her first grandchild, Henry Storm, whom she delivered in Kotzebue in their worst storm in decades.
Dogs were a part of Sydnam’s life from the time she married. Her mother, Winnie Barclay Elliott, had taught her to shoot birds but not with hunting dogs. Max was her husband’s dog and a great duck dog. He was followed by others. Tigger was the first real field trial dog she had and together they won two Master National plates. Vita followed and was the pick of the litter. She turned into the perfect dog in many ways, hunting ducks, very friendly with people and a great dog to fly with as she was not large. She, too, won national awards. Vita traveled to the Islands with Sydnam many times, was a great companion, as well as keeping the island rats at bay.
In her later years Sydnam took up woodworking, creating many high quality pieces of furniture and winning a few prizes along the way. She won first place in a 1993 Fur Rendezvous contest for her shoji screen. She also made a captain’s desk for son, Bruce and a cradle for first grandchild, Allison, along with many boxes made from exotic woods for friends.
But her creativity doesn’t stop there. She is also a poet having a number of her poems published not only in her book but also in a number of literary journals. The first poem Sydnam remembers writing was in the third grade:
An Easter Bunny promised me a lot
All he gave me was a pot
And it was hot
Sydnam raised four children, Claire (1957-1999), Elliott (1959–), Robert Bruce (1953–), and Benjamin 1968 –). She also has four grandsons: Henry Storm, Cornelius Benjamin, Jackson and one granddaughter, Allison.
At the time of this writing, Sydnam lives alone with her black Labrador named Vita, so named after the English poet Vita Sackville-West, because she was poetry in motion. A longtime parishioner at St Mary’s Episcopal Church, she is thinking about moving into the Thomas Center which is a new nonprofit senior resident home which she is most impressed with. She said when interviewed by the Alaska Dispatch in an article of November 22, 2015, “It’s nice to be with people you know . . . and (they’ve) made it so you’re not isolated.” “You’re not shut in a room.”
Reflecting on her career, Sydnam states, “Life is what you make it . . . . Be a participant, not an observer!”
Professional/Work History/Community Involvement:
Licensed Medical Doctor, general family practice: 1955-2010
Itinerant Doctor: Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association: 1995 -2010 Dutch Harbor, St Paul, St. George, Atka, Adak, and Umnak Island, Nicholski village
Part-Time Doctor: 1988-1995 Iliuliuk Clinic, Unalaska
Private Medical Practice: 1962-1967, 1972-1989 Anchorage, headed her own corporation with two associates plus six employees
Amdocs: 1979, Volunteer doctor in Kenya, East Africa, three months in a Quaker hospital in small village near Kisumu
Family Practice Clinic: 1967-1972, With Drs. Riederer and Ray, Juneau AK
Itinerant Doctor: 1961 provided medical services primarily in villages along the Yukon River with Dr. Milo Fritz preforming tonsillectomies and adenoid surgery and other medical assistance
Family Practice Doctor: 1955-1962 Anchorage Medical & Surgical Clinic, held positions of Vice President, Secretary
Alaska State Medical Society, American Academy of Family Practice, American Medical Association, American Medical Women’s Association, Anchorage Medical Society; Anchorage Heart Association and Anchorage Board of Health, Boards of Directors
Aircraft Owners & Pilots Assoc. Recertified 1982, Board Certified 1976.
Winnie Barclay Elliott Foundation, Inc.: Founder of a non-profit organization honoring excellence in education, given annually to outstanding educators
Other Information and Experience:
Associate Faculty, Perinatal Symposium: Dr. Nancy Sydnam, Chairperson of Continuing Medical Education, American Academy of Family Physicians (Reported in Providence News Cache, 7(1), Spring 1978). From: Providence Archives Seattle, http://providencearchives.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15352coll9/id/675
American Academy of Family Practice: Representative for Family Practice Residency, 1975-1980
Creative Institute: 1974-1975, Board member
Center for Children and Parents: 1973-1976, Board member
Catholic Social Services: 1972-1980, Consultant
Samaritan Counseling Center of Alaska: 1982, Founding Committee, President of the Board, steered the center from one half-time counselor in 1983 to an organization with six full-time and six part-time counselors, with satellite clinics providing over nine thousand patient hours and a certified teaching clinic for a theological seminary
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church: Vestry, 1974-1977, as well as other years & in other positions
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Mendenhall Valley, Juneau, 1967-1972, founding member
Trinity Episcopal Church, Juneau: Vestry
Cellist: Began in her 50’s to learn the cello. Played in the Anchorage Civic Orchestra and performed various other times, including taking her cello to the Aleutians with her and performing there
Sitka Summer Music Festival, Inc., Board member multiple years of involvement and support. Hosted national and internationally noted musicians for many years
Pilot: 1958, Private pilot’s license, Merrill Field, Anchorage. 1965, Float Plane Rating, Owned and flew her plane for decades
Scuba Diving, 1960 certified
Woodworker creations: Shoji Screen, captain’s desk for son, Bruce, a cradle for first grandchildren, Allison, and many boxes made from exotic woods for friends
Anchorage Professional Women’s Club, 1961, Woman of the Year
Awards with her Labrador hunting dogs:
H.E. Vita Sackville-West: AFC (Amateur Field Championship) MH (Master Hunter)
Hunting dog Tigger, MH (Master Hunter)
Woodworking awards, 1993 Anchorage Fur Rendezvous: First Prize for shoji screen and captain’s desk
Chilliwack Ploughing (horse drawn) Contest, twenty-seventh annual, 1949 First prize: (Horatio Webb Trophy)
Writings by Nancy Elliott Sydnam:
Book: Sideways Rain 20 years of medicine, music, and good-luck landings in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands of Alaska, 2012, Hardscratch Press, Walnut Creek, CA
~Borrowed Shelter, Cirque: A Literary Journal for the Northern Pacific Rim. 2014, 5(2), 56
~Anticipation, ICE FLOE, International Poetry of the North, 2006, 7(1), 69
~Gift, Explorations, Tidal Echoes, Literary Magazine of UAS, 2002, p. 58
~Washington’s Birthday, ICE FLOE, International Poetry of the North, 2001, 2(1), 74
~Morning in the Aleutians, ICE FLOE, International Poetry of the North, 2000, 1(2), 52
~In a jam, Inklings, UAA Undergraduate Literary Magazine, 1999, p. 16
Articles/Books by Others Plus Presentations by Nancy Sydnam:
Alaska Dispatch News, November 22, 2015, Housing Facility Opens
Bristol Bay Times, July 4, 2014, by Jim Paulin, Sideways Rain about the Aleutians in the Aleutians. (Details about the presentation by Nancy Sydnam, assisted by Diddy Hitchins, Given in Unalaska, Alaska)
Presentation: April 25, 2014, OLE (Opportunities for Lifelong Education) college course, Sideways Rain, the Aleutians and the Pribilofs, Secondhand Sightseeing
Interview, KDLL and KBBI Public Radio, The Coffee Table, Shaylon Cochran, April 23, 2014, Long Time Bush Doctor Shares Aleutian Tales
University of Alaska Anchorage, October 28, 2013 Memoir: Sideways Rain with Dr. Nancy Sydnam, (audio podcast). From: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/memoir/id727309266?mt=10
Homer News, May 29, 2013, Jackinsky, McKibben, Sideways Rain adds ring of familiarity to Alaska’s remote regions, about Nancy Sydnam and her book
Presentation: May 4, 2013, Nancy Sydnam, On Sideways Rain. Gulliver’s Books, Fairbanks, Alaska
Presentation: April 16, 2013, Sideways Rain in the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus Bookstore
Presentation of Sideways Rain at the Anchorage Museum of History and Fine Arts, February 2013
Women Pilots of Alaska, Sumner, Sandi, 2005, Flying Doctor: Dr. Nancy Sydnam, p 62-66, Thirty-seven interviews and profiles. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company
Medical & aviation consultant, 1996-1997 to Sue Henry on Henry’s book, Sleeping Lady: An Alaska Mystery
Fellowship: 1969/1970, Six months, Perinatology University of Washington, Seattle
Internship: 1954-1955, Virginia Mason Hospital, Seattle Washington, one of the first two women to be allowed to intern there, paving the way for others
Medical degree: 1954, Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Medical Doctor, Family Physician
Undergraduate degree: 1950, University of Washington, Bachelor of Science, Sociology
High School: Lynden High School, Lynden, Washington
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/oiC0QQi5J-E
“Nancy Sydnam is a true Renaissance woman – an outstanding medical doctor for more than 50 years, private pilot, hunter, fisher, dog trainer, writer, poet, musician and mentor to many, especially young, women,” Gretchen T. Bersch, former patient and longtime friend said.
Growing up on a family farm, Sydnam knew of few women heroes. From an early age, she wanted to fly like Amelia Earhart and she was heartbroken at eight when Earhart died. Sydnam confirmed her love of flying at 15 when she received a free flying lesson by buying war bonds. She received her license in 1958 after she married, then went on to become a doctor and move to Alaska.
Sydnam began practicing medicine in Anchorage in 1955. Her love affair with the Alaska Bush began in 1961 when she joined Dr. Milo Fritz in providing medical services to Yukon River villages.
After 22 years, Sydnam and her husband divorced and she and her children volunteered for three months in a Kenya Quaker hospital. She learned to play the cello in her 50s, taking it with her to the Aleutians and playing it for the people there. She also performed with the Anchorage Civic Orchestra. She trained Labrador dogs, winning field-trial competitions. In her later years she has taken up woodworking, creating many high quality pieces of furniture. All along the way she has written poetry.
At a 1988 reading of her book, “Sideways Rain,” Sydnam stated she had become disenchanted with the role of insurance companies in dictating medical conditions, what drugs would be covered and how long a patient could stay in the hospital. At that point, she became an itinerant doctor in the Aleutians until 2010, spending weeks at a time in the Aleutian communities.
Sydnam’s philosophy, “Life is what you make it. Be a participant, not an observer!”
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/oiC0QQi5J-E