The flu epidemic continues but other illness doesn’t stop, freight barges across the Aleutian, and a bullet-free approach to polar bears


With an ether can wrapped up with bacon,

A bear can be sadly mistaken,

     For with just one bite

     That punctures it, right?

He’ll be dead before three steps are taken.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  Avoiding burnout, I’m taking a sabbatical while my one-year non-compete clause winds down, having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently I’m on assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States.

Morning rounds on Friday dwelt on the flu.   The yearly influenza epidemic is raging in Barrow, though the peak hasn’t hit, we expect it next week.  Barrow’s three retail stores have run out of Tylenol. 

Most people do OK with the infection, but a few, especially the infants, have gotten very ill.  Some have been flown out on a Medevac plane.

Though the flu predominates, we see a wide variety of other problems.

When people suddenly decelerate from going too fast on a snow machine, car, motorcycle, airplane, or boat, flesh and bone try to occupy the same space as steel or glass, snow or ice.  The person always loses.  While limbs shatter quickly, lives shatter more slowly, then families shatter later.  A permanent injury taxes resilience of the person and his or her social context, and the effect ripples through generations.

Over the yearsm (before I came here) I attended two different male patients who had no social context.  Neither had any friends or family, both worked alone.  They died in their fifties of malignancies.

Most of my patients who had scheduled Friday morning appointments didn’t show.  In the afternoon, I took care of patients with, successively, influenza, diabetes, hypertension, car accident, back pain, more influenza, ankle injury, seizures, an eye problem, viral vomiting with dehydration, a productive cough, more influenza, and another ankle injury.

Through the day, on the job and outside my work, I talk to people.

I got information on the barge system.  This last year the Native government, Uqpiagvik Inuit Corporation (UIC) sent four barges up from Seattle.  One tug boat can handle one or two barges.  Most years the freight needs can be handled by three barges, but the new hospital construction demanded supplies.  Hazardous materials come by barge, including diesel fuel, gasoline, industrial chemicals, and the black powder used by the whaling crews.  UIC owns three barges and two tugs, and contracted with a private company to bring the other barge up.  Outside the short summer barge season, necessary supplies come up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, then fly air freight to Barrow.  The barges transport goods to the outlying villages, where they stop on the way to Barrow, but they also haul freight to Prudhoe Bay.

I was told that if one wraps a can of ether-based car starting fluid in bacon and throws it to a polar bear, the bear will bite the can, puncturing it, and will die in a matter of seconds.  I can’t swear to the veracity of the statement, and I’m not going to find out.  I’m darned sure not going to carry bacon around in bear country.

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