Standing strong: a mother and daughter face challenges together

Ketchikan | April 16, 2019
A Hometown Healthy Heritage
Rita Fahey and Kristin & Hank Milner
Rita with daughter Kristin and Hank.

Time is linear. Families are not.

Time spools out going forward from one day into the next. Families are more like streams, branching out and sometimes doubling back. Like streams, people find their own course, rarely along a straight path.

Kristin Milner was going to be a doctor. “When I was about three, my grandfather, Gilberto Herrera, was diagnosed with lung cancer. I told him I was going to be a doctor so I could cure him.”

She didn’t get the chance to cure her grandfather who died in 1990 but learned early the responsibility and the rewards of caring for others. Her maternal grandmother, Graciela Herrera-Del Castillo, moved in when she was 12.

That willingness to care for others is a family tradition. Her paternal grandfather had been a director at the hospital in McMinnville, Oregon. Her grandmother, Bernice, had been a nurse. Her father, John Fahey DMD was a dentist at the Ketchikan Indian Community clinic.

Kristin’s mother, Rita Fahey, also made caring of others the center of her life. She was a homemaker when Kristin was growing up, taking care of her mother, along with John and Kristin.

After her mother died and Kristin grew more independent, Rita decided to further her education. “John was a great man,” Rita said, “he encouraged me to go back to school to learn more about what interested me.”

In 2004, shortly after graduating from UAS with a Liberal Arts degree, she was accepted to the UAA distance program to become a Radiologic Technologist. One year later John’s sudden death changed everything.

“He had a heart attack at work in 2005 and died,” Rita said, “I don’t know what I would have done without Kristin. I just wanted to die. Kristin would say ‘no’, go into your room and finish homework and we worked together to figure out what to do next.”

John died a week before Kristin turned 20. She had still planned to go to medical school, but her father’s sudden death radically changed their lives. Rita continues, “we went from having a very comfortable income to nothing after John died. We had enough saved to get by a while, but we had a lot of adjustments to make.”

Kristin stepped in and began helping with the household bills, “I was already enrolled in a phlebotomy course and went to work two weeks after Dad died. I started the UAA nursing program here thinking I could work as a nurse to pay my way through medical school, but after one semester, I fell in love with nursing.”

Kristin got her nursing degree in 2009 and now cares for mothers and babies at PeaceHealth Ketchikan in the New Beginnings Childbirth Center. She and her husband, Johnny Milner, welcomed their own child, Hank, in 2018.

“I think working with babies and new mothers is the right place for me,” Kristin said. “I love the balance of working in a high acuity area while still providing emotional support and education to our new mothers. I am passionate about quality of care. I think it became a personal mission for me after my dad died.”

Rita praises her daughter with making sure she stayed in school but gives credit to her mother for her choice of careers.

“My mother was a modest woman,” Rita says. “When she was ill and needed x-rays, it was always a man who did the imagining and that made her uncomfortable.

“She would say ‘Rita, there should be more women doing this’ so, while I thought about going to nursing school, I decided to become a Radiologic Technologist as a tribute to my mother.”

Rita graduated from the UAA Radiologic Technology program with her degree in 2006 and began working that May at PeaceHealth in the Diagnostic Imaging Department.

“I like to help people,” Rita says of her career choice, “When I see someone, I know they are coming in with pain and discomfort, and often they are feeling afraid. I know what that’s like. Helping them alleviate that fear is always a reward.”

Family remains at the center of both Rita and Kristin’s lives. “Family is everything,” said Rita, “we just need to appreciate our families and the time we share with them. In the pages of a book about my life, Kristin would be one of its best and most beautiful chapters.”

Families, they help us past the hard, narrow parts of our lives. Like the great poet, and rock and roll legend, Carl Perkins said “If it weren’t for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no song.”

And, so we sing.