Thawing snows, faces startle while looking at maps, and preparations for the end of my walkabout


I went out one day in the spring

With great hopes, but here is the thing:

     Any woman or man

     Can come up with a plan,

But who knows what the future will bring?

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to avoid burnout, while my non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  I just got back from a six-week assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the country.

Friday morning Bethany and I woke up to the sound of birds singing outside the open window.  Not that we’d opened it all the way, but we couldn’t leave a window open if we’d wanted to in Alaska..

An air of familiar unreality followed me while I drove around town, getting ready for the next journey.  Liquid water lay in patches on paved streets where stop lights functioned in seriousness, no whine of snow machine engines permeated the air.  Jokes, not warnings, mentioned polar bears.  Two hundred million years of sediments cover the ocean floor, rather than the Chukchi Sea topped with sea ice.  Trees lined the streets, melting snow drifts decorated lawns.

Less than twenty-four hours after leaving Alaska, I made calls on patients in a nursing home half an hour from town.

On Friday afternoon I sat and talked with two docs in a room at St. Luke’s Hospital.  They had both been to Haiti several times, one had been to Africa.  We swapped stories about medicine in the bush.  They had more heroic stories to tell, after all, I’ve been working in the US in the 21st century, and I got paid.  They still let me do the talking.

I frequently ask if people know where Barrow is.  If a computer sits close by, I have them put googlemaps.com onto the browser and type in Barrow.  Then I watch their faces, as I say “Zoom out, zoom out.”  The eyebrows go up and the smiles breaks.

I enjoy watching the startle.

One of those doctors will be the clinical director at the facility where I’ll be working when I come back.  He’s a good leader, he’ll find ways to use my interests and strengths. He’s looking forward to having a Spanish-speaking doctor on staff.  I’m looking forward to teaching responsibilities and hospital work.  He and I share a sense of what we think medicine’s mission should be and where we think the system is going, whether we like it or not. 

As the sun started dipping towards the horizon, I went downstairs to the Medical Staff Administration area.  Announcing that I’d be returning in mid-June, I asked what would be needed after my leave-of-absence ended.  The credentials committee will meet, I was told, in May.

I’ve sat on that committee for the last couple of decades.

Outside, with the afternoon again grown chill and windy, the city smelled like early spring.  I went to the clinic where I’ll be settling in come June, to talk to the credentialing and Human Resources folks.  They’ll have my ID card on Monday, also a contract.

I feel like I’ve been playing hooky for the last nine months.

Everywhere I went people greeted me warmly, wanted to know where I’d been and what I’d been doing.

At the Mexican grocery I picked up mangoes and avocadoes.  When I got home, while two salmon fillets smoked on the grill I peeled and chopped the fruit,  cut up half a red onion and squeezed in a lime.

In the evening, friends came over for our Friday potluck, still the highlight of my week.

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