Senior nursing student helps treat, prevent STIs in Alaska

One person can make a big difference. Erika Cheung, a senior at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, found that out on the Alaskan tundra far from the bustling urban crowds at Case Western Reserve University and her suburban hometown in Massachusetts.

Just a few short weeks into her senior project, Cheung found herself on the Alaskan tundra spearheading community efforts to combat a major health problem among the area’s youth: sexually transmitted infections.

She gained real public health experience in Alaska, which leads the nation in cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea (in 2010, first and second, respectively). More than half of these STI cases affect patients between the ages of 15 to 24, and Cheung wanted to make a difference.

She chose the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to spend 10 weeks last fall for her senior capstone project, which culminated three years of hospital experiences and public health assignments in Cleveland.

The region is roughly the size of Oregon and is home to the Bethel Regional Public Health Center, which serves the indigenous Yup’ik Eskimos and Athabascan Indians. About 24,500 people live in the area’s 50 small villages—and the primary mode of transportation is by four-seat bush planes. In warm weather, people also travel by boat or, in the cold, by snowmobile.

The health center focuses largely on well-child visits, tuberculosis and immunizations, and Cheung was eager to help.

“Many children were fearful of the shots and cried, but I was able to administer the vaccinations through the tears,” she said. “This was kind of groundbreaking for me because it reaffirmed my desire to be a pediatric nurse. Caring for kids will be, and has always been, my passion.”

However, it was the center’s other priority—treating and preventing STIs—that Cheung focused on for her senior project.

“Most volunteers work on TB,” she said. Cheung instead developed a community needs assessment and met 22 community leaders at nearly a dozen agencies to assess the community’s perceptions about STIs.

Cheung said the consensus was: Something needs to be done.

Members of the community recommended the use of media campaigns to promote awareness. Others showed interest in educational and peer mentoring programs for the youths and teens.

After gathering her initial information, she organized a community meeting. Sixteen representatives gathered and discussed implementing community-based prevention efforts to lower the STI rates.

While Cheung could not stay to see the program through, she hopes other Frances Payne Bolton students take advantage of the opportunity to travel for their senior projects and continue the work she began.

“I believe that this opportunity to go ‘abroad’ is unique and incredibly valuable,” Cheung said. “I hope others can come and build on the project.”