CHA Spotlight: Mariah Bifelt – Itinerant

By: Linden Staciokas

Mariah Bifelt knew a number of health aides growing up, including her own aunt.  But she never considered being one until she moved back to her home village of Hughes.  “I was born in Fairbanks but raised in Hughes, leaving when I was an adult.  I returned in June of 2015, and the position was sitting empty, and had been for a number of months.  I had always wanted to be in the health field, I just had not thought about being a health aide.”

The training for becoming a health aide is rigorous but Mariah had a head start that served her well.  She had spent two years attending the UAA nursing program, so she already knew the medical language and knew how to study.  “I have a feeling that if I had not had that experience, that it would have been much harder, much more difficult to pass the classes.”

There was an important part of the job that she could not learn about in any training session, the most rewarding part of the job but also the hardest—that of being with people during some of the most frightening and vulnerable times of their lives.  It takes an enormous amount of emotional energy to help people through a crisis, especially if the outcome may not be an easy or positive one.  And frequently it is not just the patient who is upset and needs words of explanation or comfort, but also the partner, the parent, or the child.  Once in a while, the patient or family take out their fear on Mariah, blaming her for things she has no control over.

Another stressful aspect is that some health aides are on call around the clock for weeks or months at a time.  Mariah remembers going for nearly a year with no one to share the middle of the night and weekend phone calls and call outs.  “The job can be hard and when you add in not being able to relax or go off into the woods because someone might need you, it can be really hard.  I am lucky that I can call other village health aides, especially the ones who went through the classes at the same time I did, for comfort or even to just vent.  Being able to decompress is really important for my own health.”

Nevertheless, Mariah would recommend the career of health aide highly.  “It is a gift to be able to help people and there is a lot of flexibility in working for TCC.  For example, I was the health aide in Hughes but in February we decided to move back to Fairbanks and now I am an itinerant health aide.  I can decide what village I want to work in and how long I can stay.  COVID has made it a bit more difficult because when you go into a village, you have to stay for a certain amount of time.  There is no going in and out quickly, like there used to be.”

Mariah’s fiancé Aaron has always been supportive of her career.  As the mother of a two and four-year-old and the stepmother of an eight-year-old, it would be difficult for her to work the hours she did in Hughes or travel to villages the way she is doing now if he were not willing to be the stay at home parent.  She realizes how fortunate she is to have backing of not just her co-workers and her TCC supervisor, but her husband to be as well.

At this point, Mariah intends to remain a health aide for TCC.  The ongoing training and support she is provided, the way the health clinic buildings and equipment are continually being upgraded, and the fact that she can be stationed in the village of her choice or work as an itinerant, means she is never short of a challenge or chance to improve her skills.