Hospital staff changes, strep and Herpes epidemics, and polar bears shot with light rifles


I’ve hunted pheasants and quail

But the hunters here are way off my scale

     They don’t find a scare

     If faced with a bear

When they’re out on the sea hunting whale.

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.

Today the temperature bottomed out at twenty below Fahrenheit (negative twenty-five Celsius).  The morning went reasonably well, I never fell too far behind, and the patients came in an orderly fashion.  The schedule allotted plenty of time for each one.

At 11:30, the entire medical staff was called to the Commons for a meeting with the President of the Hospital’s governing body.

She told us about personnel changes, and didn’t give reasons. 

I don’t know, and I don’t want to know, why one person left or was asked to leave.  The transition will take place after my departure.  My day will run much better if I concentrate on the things I can change and influence.

No institution has attained perfection, but the hospital here made marked steps towards the better between the time I left and now.  Most notably we have developed a compassionate, effective algorithm to deal with narcotics seekers.

The afternoon brought patients in the aftermath of the influenza.  Of course several people came in with their asthma kicked into high gear.  But I also saw three cases of Herpes Simplex Virus I (HSV I, or cold sores), one of which was just in time for treatment.  Back pain and headaches worsened after the virus had gone; flu hammers the body so badly that we’ll be seeing aftershocks in the form of other diseases for six weeks.

We also have a strep throat epidemic circulating, and I prescribed a lot of penicillin.

And while those two plagues rage, there’s a subtler infectious problem at the same time: babies with aphthous stomatitis (blister-like sores inside the mouth).

Anticipation of the Qiviuk, or Messenger Feast, runs through the town like electricity.  Knowing that a patient expects fifteen or twenty patients to stay for a week colors therapeutic decisions. 

More than half my patients today are whalers.

A man I spoke with gave me permission to recount the following information.  A co-captain of a whaling crew, he killed a polar bear last year during the spring whaling season.  He used a 7.62×39 rifle, a cartridge considered by many as marginal for deer.  They had scared this particular polar bear away three times, but the fourth time the bruin approached he was not to be deterred.  At a distance of twelve paces, the man shot the bear just behind the corner of the jawbone.  The bullet did not exit, but the bear died instantaneously.  In the six hours it took to skin the first bear, three other, smaller bears approached and were easily shooed away.  He explained how he’ll use the sea to clean the hide for tanning.

Guarding the camp against bears, he said, is a very important job.  I couldn’t imagine doing it with a rifle that light.

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