Two beepers, three phones: first night on call in Amberley


These days, the bag isn’t black,

Not one, they are four, each a pack.

      You can’t carry them far

     Unless you’ve a car

And for beepers there’s never a lack 

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance from the brink of burnout, while my one-year non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Right now I’m on assignment in Waikari, a rural area in New Zealand’s North Island, an hour outside of Christchurch.

I took my first night on call. As I left the clinic in Waikari the nurse handed me four backpacks of medical equipment: one each with oxygen, resuscitation equipment, resuscitation medications, and immobilization devices like cervical collars.
My father, a physician, carried a black bag everywhere, even on vacation, and we, the children, couldn’t understand why he would do such a thing. I understand why now, and with greater understanding comes an adult’s disagreement.  A vacation needs to be a vacation, a time to rest and let go of vigilance.

An article 105 years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailed what a doctor should carry so that lives could be saved outside of hospital.

The black bag has morphed into the 21st century in New Zealand.  The internal combustion engine assures the doctor that a hundred pounds of gear stays available. What would have passed for dead on the spot a hundred years ago has become salvageable.
In the US, doctors don’t get on-site trauma training. Few would go to the scene of an accident or tragedy.  Almost none make house calls, and the black bag remains a relic of the past.

Here, an on call doctor might respond to the site of a cardiac arrest or massive trauma car collision.

I made a house call in New Zealand for a post-op Maori patient.  Manicured grounds surrounded a well-maintained home down a long driveway.  (Most Kiwis take better care of their yards most Americans, and the homes, for the most part, are neater.)  I brought a stethoscope, but all I needed was good clinical judgement and compassion.

I arrived home today with two beepers clipped to my belt, one for each geographic district that I covered, and the clinic cell phone in addition to my NZ cell phone (still undependable) along with my American Droid. 

I haven’t carried a beeper for a year.  In Alaska the hospital provided a wonderfully reliable cell phone; in Keosauqua my cell phone coupled with my apartment land line served well.  With no call in Grand Island, I didn’t need any sort of after-hours communication. 

Yet I clipped the two hip-sucking parasites on my belt, and, as if they had never left, they felt right at home.  I shuddered.

With my five pieces of electronics and Bethany’s two, we went out to supper, and just as we walked up to the restaurant, my clinic cell phone rang.

I gave instruction about stopping bleeding from a cut that didn’t require stitches. 

I have discovered that the secret for sleeping well when on call consists of convincing yourself you’re not on call.  I looked at my quintuple-redundancy electronics and lied to myself, but I still had a faint niggle at the back of my mind.  Self-deception prevailed for six hours of sound sleep but not for all eight.  I received no calls.

I gave over the beepers in the morning, and as soon as I got to the clinic I gave up the extra cell phone.

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