Athabascan languages and radio traffic

Today’s limerick at the bottom.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I am back having adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system I can get along with. I spent last winter in Nome, Alaska, followed by assignments in rural Iowa. The summer and fall included a medical conference in Denver, working Urgent Care in suburban Pennsylvania, and Thanksgiving in Virginia. Just finished with 2 months in western Nebraska at the most reasonable job I’ve ever had, I am back in coastal Alaska.  Any specific patient information has been included with permission.

I learned to speak Navajo in the early 1980’s in Canoncito, New Mexico. My teachers asserted ability I didn’t feel and made me speak for myself.  My first sentences stumbled at two words in length.  The language has 32,000 tenses and no regular verbs; I pretty much kept to the simplest of the present tenses.  I could make myself understood, and the people showed great generosity in their tolerance.  Despite my lack of grammar and vocabulary I had good pronunciation.  Sometimes my patients or the staffers would burst out laughing because, they said, “You sound just like a real person.”

Navajo language belongs to the Athabascan family. Those cultures call themselves Naa Dine (or something very close), meaning People.  The men practice mother-in-law avoidance.  Women run the society. They potlatch: every few years those who can throw a massive party for the purpose of redistribution of wealth.   Those peoples mostly call the North Pacific area home.  Anthropologists have a lot of interesting theories about why the Navajo and the closely related Apache live so far from other Dine.

The area of my current assignment includes several villages of Athabascan speakers who call themselves Denaina. Today I asked a Denaina speaker if the language were close to Navajo.  “We have a lot of the same words,” the person said, “but they mean different things.”  Struck by the universal truth of the statement, I laughed out loud and asked to use the quote in my blog.


The Alaska State Legislature is currently debating Bill #98 to regulate telemedicine. Docs out here in the wilderness have been doing telemedicine for decades under the old law, which demanded an examination before any prescription.  The remote hospitals trained Community Health Aides (CHAs) to do examinations and dialogue with doctors via radio.  Now with good telephones connections  and cell phones we still call talking with the CHAs “radio traffic.”  At this hospital, each physician has an ongoing relationship with a number of villages.  And every village has a clinic with a limited pharmacy.

The new law lacks consideration for good patient care and the reality of life in villages accessible only by air or by water. One of our docs went to Anchorage to testify against the bill, and I wrote him this limerick:

We work in places remote

You can to by plane or by boat

We rely on description

To make our prescription

Please, for this bill, do not vote.


Nobody in the audience laughed.




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