Of Red Tide and dead walrus


We went for a very short ride

And found acres exposed by low tide

Which brought within reach

Clams of the beach

And other things people eat fried

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. After two months each in Western Nebraska and the West Coast of Alaska, I’m now in Southeast Alaska.  Any specific patient information has been included with permission.

An intestinal virus with violent vomiting and profuse watery diarrhea has dominated my clinical work for the last week. It hits the toddler-to-middle school age range disproportionately, but it still struck a lot of adults, and struck them hard. I can’t do anything for the basic disease process; people tend to heal on their own. But if dehydration sets in, I have developed a routine that calls for 2 liters of IV fluids (if you must know, Normal Saline, the same as 0.9% Sodium Chloride) and 8 mg of ondansetron (trade name, Zofran).

When I hear of vomiting and diarrhea starting at the same time, I tend to think of food poisoning. But food poisoning will strike a household all at once, where this virus hits family members in sequence.

I had to consider, also, the shellfish problem.

The people on an island with 25-foot tides like to go out at low tide for mussels, clams, cockles, whelks, abalone, crabs, and octopus.

When the water ebbed out 3 feet lower than average this weekend, Bethany and I went to explore the beach.

We found the water’s edge a hundred yards past where logs drifted onto beach grass mark the high tide line, on a beach of whispering tranquility, surrounded by towering evergreens. We picked up a dead sand dollar, and saw holes where a clam spade would have brought a tasty morsel. A mother with her two children came out exploring. The adults had a delightful conversation, and one of the kids picked up an abalone. I had never seen a live one before.

Which prompted me, the next day at rounds, to ask my colleague about the posters we’d seen warning of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. He explained that some algae contain a toxin that filter feeders, like clams and mussels, concentrate, and which, if consumed, cause a very ugly paralysis. Those algae blooms, known as the Red Tide, in the warm weather, especially in El Nino years, and more often when the temperature goes up.

I asked about walrus, the sea mammal that eats mostly clams. I recalled the large walrus skull I saw on the wall of friends who live in Southwest Alaska. While out sport flying, they spotted a walrus carcass on the beach, landed, and wrestled the ivory-bearing head into the plane.

While the algae blooms won’t happen for another month, some bivalves, like mussels, retain the toxin for years after a bloom.

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3 Responses to “Of Red Tide and dead walrus”

  1. Gregory Curtin Says:

    Hey, there. I’m a teacher suffering from anxiety and depression problems and you treated me in Bridgeville, PA. I’m an English teacher, although I’m not sure I’ll be able to return to work soon, and we discussed the difficulty of getting young males to read books with female protagonists, then we talked about how it’s hard for authors to create narrators of a different gender. Anyways, you had mentioned a book that you felt was “like water on the brain.” I’d very much like to read it this summer. I could use some cathartic reading. I hope all is well with you and your family.

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