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New practitioner at Siskiyou enjoys working with seniors

A surprisingly varied educational and professional background make Adult Nurse Practitioner Mary Lou Alonso a very interesting new addition to the staff at Siskiyou Community Health Center in Cave Junction. For 30 years she worked as a registered nurse, while holding at the same time a Master’s in education.
But then she decided it was time to do something new.
“I was a chief nursing officer and then I went into administration. That’s when the light went on and I realized I don’t like managing people, I like taking care of people.” So Alonso went back to school to become a nurse practitioner. She chose as her specialties geriatric medicine and neurology.
“I was always interested in geriatrics even as an RN. I would sit and they would tell me all their stories and you learn all the things that they experienced in their lives. It’s just amazing. I enjoy geriatric people because they are a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of history.” As for neurology, Alonso explained that neurology intersects well with geriatrics. Older people have a high risk of stroke, Parkinson’s and cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.
After earning her ANP Alonso worked for 10 years as a medical missionary, in Ukraine and Ecuador. According to Alonso the people they helped were so grateful that it was humbling. They were grateful to get Tylenol, grateful to get diabetes medicine. These were all rural areas. Up in the mountains in Ecuador if you had to go to the bathroom it was a hole in the ground. In Ukraine they were so grateful that one of them killed a cow to give us beef because they think Americans just eat beef. Alonso felt so bad she wanted to tell them, don’t kill the animal, we’ll eat the vegetables you eat. We Americans complain so much about health care: “Oh I had to wait 20 minutes to see the doctor.” She gave the example of a lady, 90 years old, who walked miles with her son to come to the clinic.
Asked about how she communicated with her foreign patients, Alonso responded that she knows medical Spanish and also her husband, who went with her, was able to translate. In Ukraine there were translators. But she learned a valuable lesson:
“I learned I could communicate even though I didn’t speak the language. If you are caring, that is the language that people respond to.”
Back in the United States Alonso worked as a locum. A locum is a physician that works under temporary contract in other practices. As a locum, Alonso worked in Texas, Colorado, Nebraska and California. She found it enjoyable because it gave her an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. And her help was always greatly appreciated wherever she went.
Alonso has not reached the limit of her professional development. She is currently enrolled in a program to get her Masters in mental health with a specialty in art therapy. She treats a lot of patients who struggle with anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress and other mental illnesses. There is medication that helps these patients, as does mental health therapy. But she expects to incorporate art therapy as another tool. Alonso explained that those who participate in art therapy don’t need any special talent. It could be as simple as painting some colors on paper and then talking about what those colors mean to the person.
“It’s not a matter of drawing; it’s a matter of feeling the colors.” Alonso added that she already has patients who are excited about trying art therapy.
Asked about what is most challenging about working in geriatrics in the Illinois Valley, Alonso echoed what other providers have said: the difficulty patients have in accessing specialty care, because that involves going to Grants Pass or Medford. Another challenge of geriatrics in general is the phenomenon of poly pharmacy. Elderly patients see many doctors and get many prescriptions. So you end up with patients who are taking 30 medications, all with side effects. Alonso expects to start working with the local pharmacies to review what patients are taking and determine which ones can be gone without.
Alonso has now left her peripatetic lifestyle and made a permanent commitment to the Siskiyou Community Health Center and the Illinois Valley. When she was younger, as a nurse, she was working in Corvallis and fell in love with the area. But then other priorities happened. But when her husband was ready to retire he asked her where she wanted to go. And she said she wanted to go back to her beloved Oregon. So she leapt at the chance to accept a job at Siskiyou, first as a locum and now as a permanent staff member.
“The people here are so nice,” she said. “I felt like I’m known in the community already. I run into patients at the grocery store. That’s why I’ve always liked rural areas. I once saw a little plaque that said: ‘If you’re lucky enough to live among the trees then you’re lucky enough.’ That is so true.”