For Cindy Gallea, MSN, NP, running the Iditarod across the Alaskan tundra is a lesson in nursing rarely learned in a hospital or clinic.
"You constantly use your nursing skills with the dogs," says Gallea, 51, a nurse practitioner in family practice at Western Montana Clinic in Missoula. "You're evaluating injuries and hydration status, and you must have knowledge about medications that can and can't be used in the race." With the 2003 Iditarod approaching in March, Gallea is training at her kennel, Snowcrest Racing Sled Dogs, in Seeley Lake, Montana. She will choose 16 of her 53 Alaskan huskies to travel from Anchorage to Nome, commemorating the 1925 run that brought the diphtheria serum to Nome.
Of her dogs Gallea says, "They are such incredible athletes. They can run 150 miles and burn 10,000 calories in 24 hours. The parallels with any athletic team fit. You have varsity, junior varsity, and yearlings. They all have names, personalities, different gaits when they run, different appetites and attitudes."
In the four Iditarods she has run, Gallea has had occasion to use her nursing skills; she treated a severe leg injury and assisted a woman whose lithium battery pack exploded in her face. But mostly she has just shared her NSAIDs.
Gallea ran her first race in 1991 and her first Iditarod in 1998. She was one of about 10 women (out of about 80 competitors) to compete in 2001, her most recent race. To Gallea's knowledge, she is the only nurse competing in the Iditarod, and this year she'll race against her son Jim, 22, who competed last year. "If he gets ahead of me, he'll let me know that I need to hurry up." Gallea explainins that there are checkpoints along the route where competitors stop to pick up supplies and dog food and to allow veterinarians to check the huskies. Competitors must rest for 24 hours somewhere along the trail.
She's hoping to beat her best time of 12 days, achieved in the 2001 race. A record time of eight days and 22 hours was reached last year. "For me to be able to spend half my time as a nurse practitioner and half as a dog musher-I have the best life," Gallea says. "I'd like to come back as an Alaskan husky."-David Belcher, associate editor
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|Figure. Opposite page: the view from Cindy Gallea's sled. Top right and left: Gallea pulls into Nome, Alaska, at the finish line of the 2001 Iditarod. Above: Gallea and her dogs rest during the 2001 Iditarod.|
The Iditarod's History
The first race brought lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.
When Curtis Welch, a physician and director of the U.S. Public Health Service, recognized the first case of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska, in 1925, he knew that it would spread through the remote Alaskan town with lightning speed (a 1919 flu epidemic devastated entire villages). Welch also knew that Inuit children and elders were most vulnerable and that 300,000 units of the antitoxin would be needed within two weeks. The nearest serum was in Anchorage, about 1,000 miles to the south, and because air travel was unsafe in the frigid temperatures, the serum was put on a train to Nenana, 220 miles north of Anchorage, and dog sled teams carried it more than 700 miles to Nome-a 127-hour relay race that established the Iditarod Trail.
On this historic journey Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian gold miner, traveled 260 miles with his Siberian husky Togo. Togo's keen sense of direction led them across frozen Norton Bay in blinding snow. Gunnar Kaasen, a dog-team driver for 21 years, and his lead dog Balto pushed through more than one blizzard, and at one point Balto refused to go any further, saving the team from falling into icy water. The dog is commemorated with a statue in New York City's Central Park.
In 1967 Joe Redington and Dorothy Page organized a sled dog race to protest snowmobiles replacing dog sleds in Alaska. The race, which followed the old Iditarod Trail, became an annual event and extended to Nome in 1973.
And each year since 1997, the Serum Run 25, a 776-mile sled dog and snowmobile journey, commemorates the 1925 race by visiting schools along the Iditarod trail. Mushers encourage childhood immunization in rural Alaska and teach children about health issues such as HIV prevention. For more information, go to http://www.serumrun.org.