Darlene Huntington, PharmD ’15 brings health services to remote villages in Alaska 

When Darlene Huntington graduated from USJ with a PharmD degree in 2015, she knew exactly where she was headed —back home to Alaska. 

“Returning home to Alaska was always the plan for me. I wanted to work in our tribal health system and accepted a job prior to graduation,” she said. 

Huntington is now Lead Village Pharmacist at Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she works in telepharmacy/telemedicine. The health center offers various health services, from family medicine to acute, urgent/emergent care. 

“My focus is serving patients, mostly on an acute basis, who reside in remote villages throughout Interior Alaska,” she explained. “Many of our Interior villages lack the staffing infrastructure in their communities, and so we utilize pharmacy technology to overcome those obstacles, allowing our patients to remain comfortable in their home communities while receiving the health and pharmacy services they need. 

“Most of the patients we serve are Alaska Native/Native American descent like me,” said Huntington, who grew up in Utqiagvik, Alaska. She is an enrolled member of the Native Village of Barrow, a federally recognized Native Iñupiat tribe. Formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, Utqiagvik is located north of the Arctic and is the northernmost town in the United States. 

“You have to have a certain amount of grit to live in a place like Utqiagvik, especially during the long, cold winter months,” she explained. “The sun sets in November and doesn’t make its appearance again until January, so you have to find ways to keep yourself busy! But it is my home. And the people are full of warmth, and that is what makes Utqiagvik so special.”  

Her community supported her on her path to becoming a pharmacist. She received the Health Professions Scholarship through Indian Health Services (IHS) covered her tuition throughout her entire Pharmacy program and took advantage of the IHS Loan Repayment Program which has helped with her student loan pay off. “Growing our own healthcare professionals is a priority for many of our tribes. I am blessed to be a part of this effort and it is my greatest honor to be able to give back to a health system that has helped support me in my academic and professional endeavors.” 

Growing up, Huntington says she loved science-related activities, especially school field trips exploring the ocean and tundra nearby. She later entered the University of Alaska Fairbanks to major in Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 

During her first semester, she was dealt a blow when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  

“I had to make a tough decision to withdraw from my first semester in college for surgery. But it was really through my own health journey that I realized I wanted to pursue a career as a pharmacist,” Huntington said. “I wanted to work in the health field to help others, but I experienced a tremendous amount of support through my own personal health journey and that is really what empowered me to pursue a degree in Pharmacy. 

“In Alaska specifically, we have some of the highest rates of health disparities,” she added. “We also have significant geographical challenges that we must overcome to receive quality health services. Alaska is a large state. Many of our communities are very rural and lack a road system and a reliable U.S. postal system and are hundreds of miles away from a hospital and pharmacy. I wanted to be a part of a team that was working to overcome those barriers and improve healthcare for Alaska Native/Native American people.”  

After graduating with her B.S. Huntington began looking at Pharmacy graduate programs. 

“My academic advisor and I were reviewing a list of colleges offering accelerated, three-year programs and Saint Joe’s was one of them,” she said. She knew right away that USJ’s PharmD program was the school for her. 

“It was the genuineness of each of the panel of interviewers who interviewed me. They were all very welcoming and easy to talk to,” she said. “I was very intentional that whatever school I chose, I wanted to feel supported in my pharmacy program and I felt that from the moment of my initial site visit and interview. I also appreciated the diverse culture that was apparent throughout my tour at St. Joes. I was raised with strong cultural values and that provided a sense of comfort for me.” 

USJ’s School of Pharmacy was in the XL Center in Hartford when Huntington was a student, and she enjoyed living downtown. “I lived across the street from Bushnell Park. I have to say, I do miss the beautiful cherry blossoms and warm spring weather in Connecticut,” she said. 

“The PharmD program was intense, and the expectations were set high. But they needed to be high for a reason. I’m not going to lie, there were times where I questioned my ability to complete the program. There were many long nights studying while doing various other projects, assignments, and experiential rotations,” she said. “Learning how to balance all of that and being efficient with my time was key!” 

That hard work paid off and prepared her for her role as a pharmacist back in Alaska. 

“We serve 28 villages in Interior Alaska,” she said. “Our Village Health pharmacy technician and I travel to our village clinics regularly to do site visits. Many of our communities run along the Yukon River and each spring we must ensure that they are well equipped with pharmacy resources in case of river flooding.”  

Because most of the villages are not connected to the road system, Huntington and her crew fly to most of their villages on a Cessna 208.   

“Alaska is a vast geographical expanse, and we also have extreme weather challenges that we have to overcome, so we rely heavily on aircraft courier to get us and our supplies to these places.” 

Huntington posted a “selfie” on Linkedin in February that showed her team arriving at Fort Yukon, Alaska. It was so cold the photo shows tiny icicles on her eyelashes.  

“The temperature on arrival was -36F and that is very much a normal temperature for us during the months of January and February. It had actually warmed up that morning — the temperature gets much colder than that. Fifty-below is a normal temperature for Fort Yukon in our winter months.”  

Despite the cold, Alaska is home and Huntington loves her work. 

“The pharmacy work that I do is special to me. I love traveling to our villages, and I enjoy learning about the Athabascan [Northern Indigenous] culture, listening to stories from Elders and interacting with the community members,” she said. “I feel honored to be able to provide high quality medications services for Alaska Native/Native American populations residing in Interior Alaskan Villages. This is a dream job for me. I realize this is not your typical pharmacist job, and I am so thankful to be working in this capacity to really make impactful and meaningful change for our underserved communities in rural Alaska.” 

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