Patients went to Betty with scraped knees, fish-hooked fingers, broken hearts and curious minds.
Even after Betty retired as health aide in 1989, villagers continued to seek her counsel, advice, and, if she happened to be in a baking mood, pieces of her delicious cakes.
The people of Port Lions love Betty Nelson so much that they named the new Native Village of Port Lions Tribal clinic in her honor.
In a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month, Betty struggled for words to adequately express her gratitude.
“Thank you all for this wonderful moment,” she said as master of ceremonies, Arnold Kewan, presented her to the crowd. “I love you all. Whatever I did was a pleasure to do. I hope I can live up to this and do more for each one of you.”
She profusely thanked the people of the village for honoring her in such a wonderful way and she thanked her Savior, Jesus Christ, for being with her through the years.
“There were many times when I had to rely on the Lord,” she said. “There seemed to be no other way. A lot of you are alive and well today because of God and His tender mercies toward those who helped and answered prayers.”
Although her daughter, Vickie Woodward, could not be at the ceremony, she testified to her mother’s reliance on God in a letter, which was read by her brother, Bruce Nelson.
Woodward remembered her mother gathering her children together to pray for fog to lift so that a patient could be flown to Kodiak.
Betty became a health aide in the village of Afognak which was relocated to the present day Port Lions site after the 1964 earthquake and tidal wave.
The health aide program started out primitively. There was no clinic, telephones, not even a typewriter.
“We had a lot of Band-Aids,” Betty said. “I learned to do things over the years, but how I would have loved to have a clinic like this to work in, with all the wonderful equipment.”
Until the formation of the Kodiak Area Native Association, Betty worked in a non-paying volunteer position.
Betty’s interest in health care was piqued when she was a girl, watching movies and TV shows about nurses.
While Hollywood was a catalyst that inspired Betty to pursue a career in health care, she learned the skills from practical sources. She read books and observed her mother-in-law, Irene Nelson, who was the village midwife.
Some of the education took place “on the job” as she dealt with cases that tested and expanded her knowledge in the medical field.
After a doctor left a supply of penicillin, Betty was summoned to check on a lady who was having abdominal pains. Thinking that she might be having an appendix attack, Betty decided this might be an opportunity to use the penicillin.
Armed with the medicine, Betty made her way toward the suffering woman’s house. She met an elder who informed her that the lady was actually having labor pains. That night Betty delivered the first baby in her medical career.
Betty’s contributions to the village were extolled by visiting dignitaries from the Kodiak Area Native Association and other Native organizations.
Andy Tuber, president of KANA and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium commended Betty for spending time away from her family so that the “community gets health care,” he said.
“You are so much appreciated,” said KANA board member Margaret Roberts. “I don’t know many people who have worked as hard as you did (even) when no money available to pay you.”
Nancy Nelson of the Native Village of Port Lions Tribal Council said that Betty was “so much more than a health aide.” She directed church plays, taught cake-decorating and gardening and was involved with education and the move to get a library in Port Lions.
Peggy Andresen said Betty was her “mama substitute” when the Andresens moved to Port Lions.
Denise May, board member of Afognak Native Corporation, thanked Betty for her commitment to health care and mentorship. “She is a prayer warrior for leaders, and provides a lot of good advice.” May encouraged people to stop by to see Betty who is “one of the best listeners.”
“You have enriched this community beyond imagination and comprehension,” said Daryl Griggs, a member of the Port Lions Tribal Council.
He said it was “difficult to explain how much you have meant to the community. I remember growing up in Port Lions and feeling comforted as a child knowing that, if I fell off a cliff, Betty would be there to fix me. We’re all kind of your children. It’s an honor for me to stand (before) one of our most beloved elders.”
Wanda Katelnikoff Harris said that, when came to Port Lions in the summer of 1971, she “fell in love with this place” and with Betty and her husband, the late Abner Nelson, Sr.
“She’s given me direction when I needed it. What I absolutely love about this woman is that she prays, not only for me and my family, but everyone in this community.”
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which culminated in the release of balloons, Betty was honored at a potluck in the tribal hall. The Port Lions dancers performed several songs for the dinner. It was a long day for Betty Nelson, who discovered that popularity can be pretty exhausting.
Mike Rostad is a freelance writer and longtime Kodiakan who writes a weekly column examining the in-depth stories of Kodiak residents. You can read more about other Kodiak islanders in Rostad’s book, “Close to My Heart-Writing and Living Stories on Kodiak Island, Alaska.