Dr. Susan Hunter-Joerns might help you fall asleep, but it’s not because she’s boring.
The Juneau neurologist, who is board certified in sleep medicine, recently turned 75, went on a horse-riding vacation in France and was inducted into the International Skydiving Hall of Fame.
“It’s fun,” Hunter-Joerns told the Capital City Weekly on a Friday morning outside of office hours. “I’ve gone to Crossfit, and that’s big fun too. I can still do stuff that helps me have core strength with the horses. Some of it is purely by the grace of God. While I take care of my body, I am very grateful.”
At 75, she continues to pursue her passions, which include both work and play.
Her skydiving hall of fame induction included a jump and a recurrency check, which is akin to taking a driving test when renewing your license.
The check was no problem for Hunter-Joerns, who has 1,656 jumps to her name, was twice the U.S. national overall champion, was a member of seven U.S. Parachute teams, a seven-time national champion in freefall for style, one-time champion in accuracy of landing and member of the U.S. woman’s team that twice won gold.
The interest in skydiving branched off of a girlhood interest in aviation.
“I had a pilot’s license before I could drive,” Hunter-Joerns said. “But as soon as I got into jumping, I never went back to flying.”
Skydiving has bookended lifetimes in Hunter-Joerns’ world.
She skydived while carrying her son, Dana Beowulf Christian Joerns and scattered the ashes of her late second husband, Jack Joerns, while in the air.
“Skydivers have more fun,” Hunter-Joerns said.
The good doctor
Being a doctor is a relatively recent development for Hunter-Joerns.
She had studied math and physics and was working as a physicist sizing lipoproteins with a laser, when she began entertaining the thought of pursuing a doctor of medicine even though she was staring down 40.
“I thought, would I rather be 40 or 40 with an MD,” Hunter-Joerns said, and she’s been a neurologist since 1984.
She said the decision to earn an MD instead of a PhD in physics is “because a laser never hugged me,” and the human connection is a major reason she continues to practice.
Her patients and their family notice the connection and appreciate her work.
“She’s got a big heart,” said the Rev. Jonathan Winchester, who takes his wife, Mary, to Hunter-Joerns for neurological treatment. “She’s helped so many people here. I have to take my wife in at least once a month. When I first took her in, Mary could barely walk. She could barely move, and with Dr. Hunter-Joerns’ help, she’s moving a lot better now. As far as I’m concerned, she’s a miracle worker.”
When Hunter-Joerns was considering becoming board certified well into her medical career, she fell back on an old thought pattern.
“I thought I’d be 70 before I was board certified in sleep medicine, and I thought, would I rather be 70 or 70 with board certification,” Hunter-Joerns said.
While the skies came first, Hunter-Joerns is also an avid equestrian of many years.
Hunter-Joerns recently vacationed in France and rode 90 miles in six days, and when she spoke to the Capital City Weekly Hunter-Joerns wore a tall pair of boots perfect for miscellaneous stable muck.
She keeps two animals, a black Arabian named Dante, and the 44-year-old Sammy the Wonder Pony.
“He’s the equivalent of 170 years old in human, and he’s got the attitude to match,” Hunter-Joerns said. “Half of Juneau has been dragged along or kicked by Sammy.”
Sammy, who is also an escape artist, has suffered from Cushing’s disease for more than two decades, but Hunter-Joerns said as a neurologist she has access to samples of Parkinson’s disease medicine that she reasons has helped keep the disease in check.
Cushing’s disease is a dysfunction of the pituitary gland that can cause longer, curlier hair, rounder bellies and lethargy in horses. Some ponies have reportedly lived to be more than 50 years old.
Hunter-Joerns enjoys many different types of equestrian events, including English riding, western riding, dressage, and extreme cowboy riding.
In 2017, Hunter-Joerns and Dante placed in all seven classes at the Fireweed Classic Horse Show.
“She studies on it,” said Leah Kadush, horse and riding instructor who frequently works at Swampy Acres. “She concentrates on whatever she does. Sometimes she overthinks, but she pretty much stays on the ballgame of whatever she does. That’s just dedication.”
Kadush and Hunter-Joerns met through their interest in horses and became friends.
“She’s absolutely one of the finest, smartest women I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot,” Kadush said. “She is one of those people that if somebody needs something she furnishes it. She is a very generous, giving person.”
Moving around too
Along with the distinctive boots, Hunter-Joerns’ Friday morning ensemble included a blue, tie-dyed zip-up that fit in with her past too.
The road that took Hunter-Joerns to practicing medicine in Juneau started at University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s.
“It was a long, strange trip as Jerry Garcia said,” Hunter-Joerns said.
UC Berkeley is where the Illinois-raised Hunter-Joerns studied math and met her first husband, Ludlow Clements, a B-47 pilot who died young of testicular cancer.
“I was a widow by 23,” Hunter-Joerns said. “I knew I’d be married again and I knew sort of what his name sounded like.”
That was Jack Joerns, who was a Spitfire pilot in World War II, and he did his first solo flight at the same Illinois airport as Hunter-Joerns. However, Joerns’ flight came 30 years before his future wife’s.
After the two married, the years took Hunter-Joerns to Houston and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and brought a divorce from Jack and a marriage to the goldsmith Michael Hunter. Joerns and Hunter-Joerns stayed friends, and after Jack died at 91, Hunter-Joerns spread his ashes on what would have been his 92nd birthday.
Hunter and Hunter-Joerns shared a love for the same Alaska Native artifacts and an image of Romeo the black wolf running on reflective water, and that was enough to inspire a move to Alaska in 1993.
“We thought if things were bad enough, we could fish,” Hunter-Joerns said.
Instead, Hunter-Joerns said the two, who would later divorce, had no problem finding work, and she felt an immediate connection.
“My wackiness fit in,” Hunter-Joerns said. “I told people I was moving to Juneau to cultivate my weirdness.”
Her 25 years in Juneau make up the longest time she’s ever stayed one place.
“It was the first time I felt at home,” Hunter-Joerns said.
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