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Compassionate care behind walls

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​Therapy services offered for Seward prison inmates

It takes a sort of courage to walk down the long, enclosed hallway that leads to the Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward. Multiple locked doors require passcodes or permissions to enter, and the grounds of this state-run maximum-security prison are surrounded by razor-sharp loops of wire atop tall chain link alleyways where prisoners walk laps outside in the sea-breezed wind. Despite its beautiful surroundings, this is a harsh place, housing up to 500 convicted criminals.

Still, the people living within these walls are human, too, and as such often suffer the aches and pains of age or injuries. When this happens, Providence Health & Services Alaska helps.

“They’re people with neck and back problems like anyone else,” says Kim Dahlby, a physical therapist at Providence in Seward. Part of Dahlby’s job is evaluating patients at the prison once a week. The services are offered at a quarter of the hourly rate that is traditionally charged. Prisoners pay a small sum, too, out of their allowances, to ensure their visits are justified.

Dahlby says he never knows who he is going to see week to week. He often will examine three or four new patients per visit; other times he just checks in on existing patients.

“My focus is primarily on education,” Dahlby says. “It’s hard to convince a big tough guy to do kegel exercises or work on their core, but I try.”

Many people might balk at offering reduced rates to the inmates at the prison, says Lila Hurst, supervisor of Rehabilitation services at Providence Seward Medical & Care Center and Providence Seward Mountain Haven. But, she says, Spring Creek, as the largest employer in Seward, benefits from the program, and Providence lives out its mission of serving anyone in need, regardless of their circumstances. This work is possible via the $58 million in community benefit contributions by Providence Health & Services Alaska in 2014.

At Spring Creek, Dahlby says he just does his job and doesn’t spend time thinking about what his patient’s crime might be or asking personal questions. His only desire is to help ease his patients’ aches and pains.

“I treat them with respect, and they treat me with respect,” he says. “After explaining to them something like body mechanics and then see them stand up and have good posture is rewarding. You just try to do your best to help.”

Dahlby enters the prison, the doors slamming behind him with a resounding thud. The inmates were due to be walking around the grounds outside, but a lockdown has canceled their free time and they are nowhere to be seen. A sole inmate, who’s earned privileges to clean floors, sweeps his wet mop across the room, keeping his eyes on his job but peeking to get a view of the snow-capped mountains outside the windows.

Dahlby continues on, alone, toward the security screening area that will take him even deeper into the prison. He’s going alone; no additional visitors are allowed.

“I think anything that helps people get better is a good thing,” he says. “And they are people, no matter what they’ve done to get here.”