Dixie Light Endowed Scholarship for Baccalaureate Completion in Nursing
Few people say they moved to Alaska to escape severe weather, but that’s what Dixie and Mort Light say. They came here from northern Michigan where winter storms swooped in from three the Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, or Huron, which are all huge bodies of water capable of delivering biting cold weather. “It could stay at 40 below for weeks at a time before warming up to 20 below. It seemed like it snowed every night, averaging twelve feet a year,” Mort told me. "I gave up shoveling a path to the barn to milk the goats-it was easier to just trample the snow down rather than try to remove what drifted in overnight, adding a new layer of new snow on top the old. Then the summers were hot, way hotter, and Dixie can’t handle the heat.
“We found we both loved Alaska right from the start although we had expected it to be wilder and more remote. My mother even came to live with us and stayed until she died at age 95”
When I spoke with Mort, he laughed a lot and everything he said highlighted his joy at being in Alaska and having had the opportunity to work with his wife in fulfilling her dream of coming to Alaska and establishing a small rural clinic. After forty years of working in large institutions, teaching at universities, directing clinics, and writing grants, she wanted develop a small clinic in rural Alaska. Years of working for others made her want to try her hand at being her own boss, making her own decisions about what services people needed most in a rural practice, how to involve patients in making their own decisions about their personal health care and how to keep patient costs as low as possible. This is possible in Alaska where nurse practitioners are allowed to work independently instead of being supervised by a doctor.
A Nurse Practitioner (NP) is a Registered Nurse who has a Masters or Doctoral degree in nursing, and is trained in the diagnosis and treatment of common as well as complex physical conditions. In Alaska, NPs prescribe appropriate medications after making diagnoses either independently or in consultation with physician colleagues.
Mort said Dixie’s biggest goal was patient teaching. -educating people to identify their own health needs. He said, “She feels teaching achieves more than treating single injuries. She’s a natural teacher. I enjoy working with her and learned a lot after I learned to keep my mouth shut and listen. She really had done it all-teacher, hospital nurse, ICU, ER, specialist in neurosurgery. She’s always had a great mind for remembering things and transferring knowledge from one place to another.”
Dixie’s teaching experience wasn’t limited to the hospitals and universities where she worked. Some of her most rewarding teaching experiences even as a tourist were in remote locations like Oaxaca, Mexico, India, and the Aleutian Islands. Dixie’s face lit up when she described her experience in the Aleutians training nurses to perform basic screening exams. "I was only there for a short time, and we all worked from six in the morning until nine at night every day. They were ready for it and took in everything I offered.
From Dixie’s childhood days in central Illinois, she had always dreamed of coming to Alaska. Mort, being from New York City, told her he’d come as long as they could stay within sixty miles of a big city like Anchorage. Dixie came ahead to look for a place while Mort finished out the last eight months of his contract as a school psychologist.
Choosing the Willow-Houston area, Mort said, was happenstance. The house came available, the land was right, and there was room for a clinic. To get the practice up and running quickly without a huge monetary outlay, they bought an abandoned trailer and had a friend move it onto a pad for them. Saving money on the facility was just one of the steps they took to be able to offer quality care at the lowest possible price, which was Dixie’s primary goal.
With the clinic in place, they set about building a clientele. That turned out to be easy. They put flyers in mailboxes. A few patients showed up. Then a few more. Word of mouth took over and they had all the work they could handle.
One of their patients, Debbie Miller of Miller’s Market, shared her family’s experience with the Dixie and Mort Light:
They were the closest to the old “county doctor” I’ve ever known," she said. "They cared for us like we were family. They loved us. Dixie was excellent at diagnosing things-she spotted my thyroid problem instantly when several other doctors hadn’t picked up on it. I heard others say the same thing about her special ability to diagnose quickly and accurately. She also went the extra mile to make sure problems got taken care of. When the thyroid specialist in Anchorage said he couldn’t see me for a month, she contacted him and got me in within the week.
One time, my daughter had a reaction to the antibiotic she prescribed, and Mort drove to our house in the middle of the night and brought me an alternative antibiotic.
Their prices were always reasonable, and I think they often took fish, roasts, whatever anyone could offer for payment if they didn’t have the money.
Dixie was funny, too. One of the mushers gave her a goofy hat that she wore it a lot. Then she got lung cancer. I think she’d been a heavy smoker several years ago. It must have been a wake-up call because she started playing John Phillip Sousa marches and dancing around. She lost weight and got healthy. After that she really pushed people to eat healthy and not smoke.
When I asked Dixie about her work with the mushers, she said she’d gotten involved when one of the Junior Iditerod doctors broke his leg and she got called in to cover for him. She said the mushers mostly wanted their dogs checked out, not themselves. She stayed up all night checking people as they came in and left. Professionally, she had always been interested in the nutritional needs of patients in remote areas, specifically recreational and professional dog sledding-helping them learn how to prevent sickness and to provide self-care for illness and injury when undertaking extreme weather sports.
Another of their patients, Carol Johnston told me she started taking her family to the clinic after seeing the sign as she drove by:
Dixie and Mort were always pleasant, knew everyone’s names. It was great to be able to take a child to the doctor and get medications if they were needed, without driving all the way to Wasilla. Total health was what mattered to her. Mort kept a block of fat on his desk to show people what a pound of fat looked like. Dixie was always concerned with my skin. If I’d gotten a dark tan, she worried I’d get skin cancer. They were both concerned about the health risks of smoking. When Dixie got sick with lung cancer and they had to cut back on hours, they weren’t able to keep as big a supply of meds on hand since they might expire, and Mort would always apologize for that. One time I sent all my construction workers to get tetanus shots when I was worried about them being exposed to the bacteria. Dixie was a fascinating lady. She’d been all over the world and then came here to practice. She was truly a ’family" doctor, charged maybe $24 or $30 for a visit and minimum for meds.
Gary Miller’s report of the Lights matched his wife’s account. Gary told how Dixie scolded him one time for waiting too long to come in. “Now I have to give you a shot in the butt instead of a bill,” she teased him.
Dixie had a heart to serve and a heart for poor people. You never had to worry if you brought enough money. They adopted us and lots of other people, too. They billed way less and had lots of families in and out of their clinic. They filled a niche in our community that hadn’t been done before. They both had so much compassion. Mort played a big role in the success of the clinic-he was her assistant, secretary, and receptionist.
They were a team-they simply wanted to serve, a rare quality these days.
The clinic is currently running on a slightly reduced schedule while the family, including their son Dan who lives with them, devotes their efforts into Dixie’s recovery from cancer of the spleen. She won a bout with lung cancer over ten years ago and when I talked with her, she looked good and seemed energetic.