by Thomas Staudter
Prospective patients hoping to make an appointment with Nathan DeDeo, a doctor of optometry and co-owner of Hudson River Eye Care in Tarrytown, may speculate why he has been unavailable and “out of town” a number of times during the past year-and-a-half. Is the friendly 36-year old attending professional conferences, vacationing or golfing at some of the storied courses around the world?
Low-income residents from a number of small villages and cities in Alaska desperate for medical care know otherwise, however.
Since May 2015, DeDeo has made five trips to the state known as the Last Frontier, traveling above the Arctic Circle and to some of the most sparsely populated regions of North America, as part of a state-sponsored effort to provide basic medical services for residents.
“Working in Alaska has been quite a different experience for me,” DeDeo said in a recent interview at his Tarrytown office. “The people are so welcoming, and their culture is entirely different from what I know—the languages, food, homes with grass-thatched roofs, you name it. Every day there is amazing and presents something new to me. And the Alaskans are really tough people, able to handle anything, it seems, but also very kind and generous.”
He added, “My only regret is waiting so long to start working there.”
In Alaska, DeDeo is part of a medical team that travels in a small plane, as there are no roads between many of the villages and cities where he has worked, the names of which—Shaktoolik, Elim, Stebbins, Koyuk, St. Michael, Kotzebue, Savoonga, Point Hope, Selawik, Unalakleet, Hoonah, Haines, Tenakee Springs and Yakutat, as a relative sampling—represent the mixture of Inuit, Native American and settlers from the Lower 48 that make up his patient base.
The needs of a mobile group providing physicals and other medical examinations are modest: “Just enough room for a desk, two chairs and whatever equipment we have brought along, which isn’t much,” said DeDeo.
Usually, the team ends up in a village school or library, sometimes the only edifice with running water and electricity, and for the sake of privacy the examining room sometimes is a closet. Visits can keep the team in the same location for two or three days, with 30 to 40 people examined over the course of a day. The doctors are often given small, handmade trinkets as gifts by the patients they see.
Patients also bring the doctors food to eat.
“People show up with meals for us all the time,” DeDeo said, “and that includes boiled whale blubber and a lot of other things I normally don’t eat. Generally, though, the food is good but not cooked with much spice.”
The eye maladies that DeDeo finds in the Alaskans are not much different than what he sees in his Tarrytown office. But in some of the smaller villages he has traveled to, where there are just a few hundred residents, a lack of diversity in the gene pool means an exacerbation of bad eye problems from generation to generation.
As for what a snow- and ice-filled landscape does to the eyes, DeDeo noted that it has a minimal effect on Alaskans.
DeDeo is quick to point out that his travel expenses to Alaska are paid for and that he also receives a small stipend for his work—but, in the end, it doesn’t add up to much, and certainly not enough to make a living. It’s definitely a charitable endeavor, and the sort of service to others he has participated in throughout his life.
While growing up in Pennsauken, New Jersey, DeDeo often accompanied his mother, a banker, when she volunteered at the local food pantry and animal shelter. In high school, he was a member of a choir and several other musical groups that raised money for different not-for-profit organizations through concerts and arts events.
After majoring in biology at Adelphi University, DeDeo began doctoral study at SUNY College of Optometry in Manhattan. In his second year, he joined a few remote medical missions to low-income communities in Virginia and North Carolina. Along with the medical doctors and opticians on the mission, DeDeo witnessed real poverty and how the poor suffer from the lack of basic health care. Although most of his duties were limited to administration, he was able to see the work of the doctors, as they spent several hours under a big tent, the line of patients waiting to get into the makeshift clinic stretching far down the road.
While studying for his doctorate and also afterwards DeDeo, who resides now in North Arlington, New Jersey, became involved with Special Olympics. He kept up his singing, as well, and continues to perform, a bespectacled version of Michael Bublé, for a volunteer organization that raises money for disaster relief.
Helping others, it seems, is a habit of nature for DeDeo.
DeDeo and a SUNY Optometry classmate, Larah Alami, opened up Hudson River Eye Care three years ago after each had apprenticed for a few years at several chain eye care companies. Alami’s husband, Rocco Robilotto, another grad school classmate, first discovered the Alaskan health outreach program online, and actually moved there with Alami to work full-time for a few years. (Robilotto has a separate optometry practice in Manhattan.)
Once settled with the eye care business in Tarrytown, where patients are examined and then fitted for eye wear in one visit, DeDeo was ready for Alaska.
“Talking about Alaska just reminds me how much I miss being there,” he said, adding that his next trip northward will be this fall.