Ethel Lund, a Founder of SEARHC, Dies at 91

Ethel Lund

Ethel Lund passed away in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 2022, at the age of 91, dying peacefully in her sleep at the Sitka Pioneers Home. Her immediate family was in Sitka at the time.

She was of the Teeyhittaan (Frog) clan of Shx’at Khwaan, Wrangell. Her Tlingit names were Aanwoogeex’, signifying the Raven as he walked about when creating the earth, Leek’, and Shaaw Tlaa (gumboot mother).

At her death, Ethel was president emeritus of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, one of the largest medical operations in the state. Although credited with helping found SEARHC and then, as its president, helming the organization for a quarter century through turbulent seas, Ethel would counter such praise by saying that those most deserving of credit for SEARHC’s success were the “little old ladies from the villages,” the belittling description of the board’s directors she once overheard, and one she long used with pride when speaking about the organization

Ethel Lund was born in Wrangell  Nov. 4, 1931, to Martha Ukas, daughter of Thomas and Josephine Ukas, prominent Tlingits of Wrangell, and fisherman, Carl Lund who had immigrated from Scandinavia. Within a few years of her birth Carl died in a fishing accident, and her mother succumbed to tuberculosis when Ethel was 15.

For most of her childhood, while her mother’s health was in decline, Ethel’s grandparents, Tom and Josie, took a strong role in her upbringing. Tom Ukas was a well-known totem carver, clan historian, and fisherman. Josie, a founding member and first secretary of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, was bi-lingual, well educated, and respected by the Native community.

Ethel graduated from Wrangell High School in 1949 as valedictorian. She went to work as a ward attendant at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital for over a year, then attended nursing school in Portland, Oregon. Her ambitions to become a nurse were derailed when, two years into the program, she developed tuberculosis and was confined to a hospital sanitarium for 18 months.

Following her recovery she began a career as a medical transcriber, married Leo Gene Comer, Inupiaq from Deering and Diomede, and had three children: David, Diane, and Leah.

In 1968 Ethel returned to Wrangell with her children and began her life anew. She joined the Alaska Native Sisterhood and was soon appointed to the Southeast Native Health Board. She arrived on the cusp of a major national change in the delivery services to Native Americans: self-determination, which became law in 1975. By then, Ethel was chair of the Southeast Alaska Native Board of Health, that soon incorporated as the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Corporation (later “Consortium”). She embarked on a mission that became her passion: providing access for all Alaska Natives to the best available medical and health care.

In September 1981, Ethel Lund, president of SEARHC and chair of the Alaska Native Health Board, was the featured speaker at the opening plenary session of the 5th International Symposium on Circumpolar Health, in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the time, SEARHC was quite small, but had begun administering the Community Health Aide Program. The theme of her speech was the role of northern women in health care.

Most village CHAs were women, and few in those days had much education. The old guard at the symposium were scandalized that uncredentialed, barely educated villagers were allowed to treat and, if necessary, prepare the sick and wounded for medical evacuation. But plenty of the new guard in the audience later testified of being inspired by Ethel’s words. One of those was Elise Patkotak, a young health official then serving as director of the northern-most health agency in the United States, the Barrow health department. Patkotak, now a well-read columnist living in Anchorage, described most medical providers of that period as being the type to provide a paternal pat on the head for the “childlike” Natives. But in Ethel, Patkotak saw a leader for the new generation of health care professionals not willing to accept the status quo. “Ethel Lund was a wonderful example of an Alaska Native who knew how to handle conflict, how to do so gently, with grace.”

Several years after the international conference, in January 1986, Ethel presided over the ceremony at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital by which the organization she led took over the Southeast Alaska service unit from the Indian Health Service and assumed responsibility for providing medical and health care to all Native people in the region.

Ethel, ably assisted by Niles Cesar, chief executive officer of SEARHC, and Art Willman, longtime administrator of Mt. Edgecumbe, charted a strategy that would have been illegal for the federal employees of an I.H.S. service unit: lobby Washington, D.C. The three worked with Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and his staff, and with administrators in the Department of Health and Human Services, to bring home an unprecedented level of federal funding that transformed the Mt. Edgecumbe Service Unit into one of the most  well-equipped, and best staffed former I.H.S. service units in the U.S.

In May 1993 Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital won top accreditation by the Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation at a time when only six percent of hospitals surveyed nationwide achieved this status. At the time, it was the highest score ever achieved by an Indian health hospital nationwide.

A new method of contracting between Native American organizations and the federal government was in the wind, “compacting,” by which Natives could assume full authority over federal contracts and not have to get pre-approval for virtually every budgetary decision. Seeing the light, Ethel directed her staff to make it so. Her team led the way by forging a statewide collaboration of all service units, one compact for all, that put Alaska at the forefront of Native health care nationally.

That Ethel Lund rose to such prominence and achievement was remarkable considering the challenges women faced, especially Native women. She retired from SEARHC in 2000, full of honors and recognized as one of the most successful administrators of her day, leaving behind an organization of great strength that, more than two decades later, remains among the most prominent health care organizations in the United States.

In addition to serving as SEARHC president and president emeritus, she was Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp president and secretary; executive vice president of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska; vice chair of the National Indian Health Board; and president of Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 1 and Camp 70. In 1985, she was elected to the Sealaska Board of Directors and served several terms. 

Ethel received numerous awards and honors. In 1978 she was President Carter’s appointee to represent Alaska Natives on the President’s Commission on Mental Health; was named Woman of the Year (1984) by the Business and Professional Women of the Juneau Chapter (first Alaska Native woman to win the award); received the Alaska Federation of Natives President’s Award; the National Indian Health Board Service Award; and the Verna Carrigan Humanitarian Award from Bartlett Hospital.

Ethel was preceded in death by her mother Martha Ukas, her father Carl Lund, her grandparents Thomas and Josephine Ukas, her first husband Leo Comer, son David and daughter Leah. 

She is survived by her daughter Diane Comer and grandchildren Richard Bradshaw of Portland, Taylor Beck of St. Louis, and Michael Hoyt and his wife Sig Tapqaq of Nome, and by many, many friends and loved ones.

At the close of her 1981 speech at the international symposium in Denmark, Ethel said of Indigenous healers, “The women were so strong they were soft and gentle,” a fitting epitaph for a woman like Ethel Lund.

Memorial services will be held in Sitka 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi; in Juneau at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17,  at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall; and in Wrangell during the summer of 2023.

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AK COVID-19

At a Glance

(updated 11-29-22)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 12:15 pm Tuesday, November 29.

New cases as of Tuesday: 414

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 286,561

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,399

Total (cumulative) hospitalizations – 4,195

Case Rate per 100,000 – 56.8

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

COVID in Sitka

The Sitka community level is now "Low.'' Case statistics are as of Tuesday.

Case Rate/100,000 – 70.40

Cases in last 7 days – 6

Cumulative Sitka cases – 3,173

Hospitalizations (to date) – 31

Deceased (cumulative) – 10

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.

 

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