Fever, cough, aches, and plunging temperatures when the sun comes out


 

Epidemics of this are not new

But what is a doctor to do?

    With coughing and aches

    Till the high fever breaks,

The typical symptoms of flu.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I’m taking a sabbatical to come back from the brink of burnout.  While my one-year non-compete clause ticks off, I’m having adventures, working in out-of-the-way places, and visiting family and friends.  Currently I’m on assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the US.

Three symptoms distinguish real influenza: fever, cough, and aching.  Each year the particular circulating strain will show some unique characteristics; last year, for the first time, vomiting and diarrhea accompanied most cases.  Some years headache happens to most of the patients, other years people complain of profusely runny nose.

Chaos mathematicians and complex systems analysts can explain why the flu in a community will reach a tipping point and go, well, viral.  We’re all familiar with the scenario; a few people get the flu, the first cases aren’t too bad; later cases get much worse.  At the peak of the epidemic, our co-workers stay out sick, the schools close, and we can’t get anything done.  Ninety percent of the cases occur within three weeks; the epidemic starts in the north and spreads south.

The scenario repeats itself yearly.  Except for last year, when the pandemic H1N1 “swine flu” turned out to be more of a sardine than a shark, most people got their flu shots and flu season went well.

Many years the tsunami of the flu season overwhelms the medical infrastructure; in 1993, at the end of the season, neither love nor money could have bought an influenza test kit, amantidine nor rimantidine and the chronically ill died by the score.

The virus has Barrow in its grip this week; more than half the patients I’ve seen in the last week were suffering with the same symptoms.  Today we received confirmation of influenza.

With housing in short supply in Barrow, people crowd.  Contagious diseases, especially those spread via the respiratory route, run rampant in these conditions. 

I’ve been working late every day; today I hit forty hours and went into overtime.  Yesterday I finished before supper for the first time since I got here.

I labor with some very good doctors, all hard-working team players.  We have a well-equipped hospital and a well-stocked pharmacy, and exactly six exam rooms.  Emergency medical transports, dramatic life and death cases, leave by air daily.

I wish I had more time to listen to each patient’s story.  I want to ask questions like, what did you find when you got there?  How many geese did you get and how did you get that many?  How can you load eight caribou to be pulled by one snow machine?  How do you find a wolverine?   What is the best way to use fur as a ruff on a parka?

Outside the temperature runs twenty-five degrees below zero till the sun comes up, and in the clear skies of the afternoon the mercury plunges and the radio warns people not to go out.

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