Posts Tagged ‘bowhead whale’

Foxes, itches, triumph, and hunter: on the cusp of leaving Nome

April 1, 2015

On the med list I’m pulling a switch
‘Cause my patient came down with an itch
Now they’re getting the sleep
That’s restful and deep
And for trazodone I found the right niche

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 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) I can get along with. Right now I’m back to Nome from temporary detail to Brevig Mission.

I took care of a patient with a very bad diagnosis and a very bad itch. I will leave it up to the specialists to try to change the course of the disease, here in Nome I will try to relieve suffering. Because itch in the context of unrelenting pain constitutes torture. We looked over the med list.

Me: Aren’t you allergic to codeine?

Patient: Yes, it makes me itch, real bad. Same with the hydrocodone.

Me: Stop picking at yourself. Why do you take the oxycodone?

Patient: Beats me. Doesn’t work. That’s why I finished ’em early.

Me: If they don’t work, why do you take it?


Me: Maybe oxycodone is making you itch. Let’s try stopping it.

Patient: But how am I going to sleep?

Me: How are you sleeping now?

Patient: I’m not. Those pills don’t work.

Me: Maybe we should stop them.


Me: How about if I give you a sleeping pill to help you sleep and you come back next week. How about trazodone?

It took some explaining, but the patient came in, looking fresh and happy and focusing a lot better, having slept well 4 nights in a row, and now having much less pain. Because (everyone knows) that good sleep helps a person deal with pain.

And another demonstration of the principle of ABCD (Always Blame the Cottonpickin’ Drug).


I can post this about the young man because I got permission from him and his mother and because everything is on Facebook. Well on the way to being a hunting legend at age 14, he got his first polar bear at age 11, same year he got his first bowhead whale. He has lost track of the number of walruses he’s gotten so far this year. I still won’t publish his name or what he came in for.


I stepped into my cubicle about 10 in the morning and saw a red fox run past.

Foxes hunt at night, any abroad by day raises suspicions of rabies. At home, if I see raccoon, skunk, or fox outside of dusk, dawn, and night, I will seek a weapon to dispatch the animal. In Barrow, we assumed rabies in all arctic foxes.

The furry red animal ran along the north side of the building, around to the west. I said, loudly, “There goes the fox!” and strode briskly to the other end of the clinic to try to get another look; I worried it might head to town. I didn’t see it again, and decided it dens either under the hospital or in the maze of construction dross nearby.


The first patient of the day felt really, really good after the vitamin B12 shot yesterday. Best in years; better sober after that shot than drunk.

Which made my day.


I leave tomorrow after an abbreviated afternoon clinic. Staffers have come in to wish me well. I got a great going-away card, a very trendy tote bag, and a pair of hand knit socks. Along with the story of the wool (starting with the sheep) and the WWI-era sock knitting machine.

Medical Advice at Parties.

July 8, 2012

At parties I’m asked for advice

It’s happened way more than twice

Wouldn’t you know

Sometimes I say ‘no’

But I usually try to be nice.


Bethany and I received a surprising number of last-minute invitations to parties today. 

People ask me for medical advice in social situations.  On one occasion, shortly after my mother’s death, I snapped and yielded to the urge to sarcasm and immediately regretted it.  Yes, the request arrived at an inappropriate time and place; no, the patient had never seen me on a formal professional basis; yes, I had every right to turn the request down.  But I did so with finesse and eloquence, a misapplication of good verbal skills.

Today I recommended the book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles in the buffet line, and a trial of over-the-counter meclizine while eating spanokopita.  I listened intently to an alcoholic’s relative, and agreed counseling would be a good idea.  I nodded while a person detailed a coworker’s headaches.

In med school and residency and even later, the docs who mentored me would say, “It comes with the territory.”  I suspect the phrase comes from traveling salesmen who would use it to describe the positive and negative things about working in a particular area.  The advantages of working in Montana differ from those of New York.

I would worry more about seeing a patient as a collection of diseases rather than as a whole human being if I didn’t talk about so many other things with the same set of people.  Today I had discussions about archery, firearms, ballistics, gardening, stone fruit, bicycles, New Zealand, and Alaska.

Yesterday I had a good talk with a friend, just back from 8 weeks of locum tenens (substitute doctoring) in Barrow.  The Inuit filled their quota of 21 bowhead whales; on one day they brought in three.   Weather socked the place in more than once, preventing critically ill patients from reaching services on a timely basis.  We agreed that Barrow ranks as a place on the fringe of the 21st century, that theft was nonexistent, and that the North Slope people smile more than any population we’ve seen.

Bethany and I spent two weeks in June in southern Alaska.  Four days of fishing, four days with friends, and four days of Continuing Medical Education with the Alaska Academy of Family Practice’s 27th Annual Scientific Conference in Kenai.  The sun set about 11:30 and rose a couple of hours later.  Which gave us a lot of time to fish but played havoc with our sleep.  Not nearly as bad as the 8 weeks of unremitting day without a single sunset the first time I went to Barrow. 

I might go back to work in Alaska, eventually, but Barrow remains outside my zone of comfort, like working in Sioux City and having the nearest referral hospital in Dallas.

A man, a harpoon, and a whale

January 26, 2011

A man once stood on the ice,

And a whale came up, very nice

    His crewmates did hike,

    But he made a good strike

And the tale’s been told, more than twice.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I’m taking a sabbatical to come back from the brink of burnout.  While my one-year non-compete clause ticks off, I’m having adventures, working in out-of-the-way places, and visiting family and friends.  Currently I’m on assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the US.

Talking with whalers has become the highlight of my day.

Barrow depends on whaling for subsistence.  In the spring, April and May, the whaling crews go out in umiaqs, or skin boats, with harpoons and shoulder guns, for bowhead whales.  They make the boats on wood frames with skins harvested from walrus (other places use bearded seal).  With components of 19th century technology, percussion caps, black powder, and locally worked wood, they make sophisticated harpoons. 

Barrow has about fifty whaling crews, each has a captain.  Intelligent, forceful, and decisive, every captain has strong leadership skills.  The crews will get together in a few weeks and start clearing trails out to the ice, when the first breaks appear and leads of open water show through.

Bowhead whales got their name from using their heads as battering rams.  If they want to come up to breathe, they can smash through six feet of ice when necessary with their bow-shaped heads.  They migrate north into the Arctic Ocean before any other sea mammal.

I have heard the following story from several sources, and I have no reason to doubt its veracity.

Last spring whaling season the captain of a crew decided to move the tent to a place closer to the water; all but one member left to bring equipment further out on the sea ice.  One member, left alone, spotted a whale, who offered himself to be killed, and came to the edge of the ice.

The man, alone, standing at the water’s edge, threw the harpoon, and made a good strike and didn’t know it.  The whale ran, as struck whales do, directly away from where he stood, and the man watched the three hundred feet of line attached to the harpoon play out.  Just before the end of the rope, just before the blaze orange float went into the water, the whale turned around, and swam directly back towards the man.

Then, giving his soul to eternity and his body to the people, the whale died.

And started to drift with the current.

The man grabbed the line attached to the harpoon.  With no way to call for help, it took all his strength to keep the whale from drifting away.

He maneuvered the rope around, looped it on a snow machine, and before the whale could drag it into the sea, he grabbed the radio and signaled for assistance.

He held onto the whale for another 45 minutes before his crew members arrived.

They say he collapsed when he arrived at the hospital, but he lived.

When I’ve heard the story, I’ve inferred that it happened because the man was hunting right, his heart was pure. 

The whalers have agreed with me.