Posts Tagged ‘Prudhoe Bay’

Arrival back in Barrow: spilled milk in the Arctic night

January 18, 2011

Down the dark runway we rolled

Through the night, the snow, and the cold

    You know I might sigh

    Over spilled milk, but not cry.

I didn’t come here for the gold.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa, in a career change to avoid burnout.  While my one year  non compete clause ticks out, I’m having adventures, working in a lot of places, and visiting family and friends.  Currently I’ve returned to Barrow, Alaska, where I had my first locum tenens assignment this summer.

We left Anchorage at sunset.  We walked out onto the tarmac, entering the plane near the tail.  We peered around the end of the aircraft and saw the sun going down.  We will not be able to see the sun again for at least a week.  Gentle cold filled the clear air.

In the plane, a thick bulkhead with a locked door separated our area from the front of the plane, and Bethany and I thought that first class passengers took their privileges seriously.  As we hadn’t heard them called, and as none entered the plane at the front, we realized that the plane carried none.  Cargo occupied the fore part of the jet. 

Most of Alaska is “the bush,” meaning that goods and people come and go by water or air.  In state, Alaska Airlines allows three pieces of checked baggage at no extra cost.  In Barrow’s airport, you can see the flow of goods in the duct taped Rubbermaid bins.  Big screen flat-panel TV’s come in with every flight, though the baggage handlers in Barrow use as much force as baggage handlers everywhere.

Yet, on the plane we sat next to a young man who had driven a truck last May from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay up the Dalton “highway”, then from Prudhoe Bay to Nuiqsit via the Ice Road.  He’d driven from there to Barrow along the shore, crossing bays on the ice.  Thus, a trickle of vehicles comes to the North Slope by road, and, at great risk, arrives in Barrow. 

The plane landed, hard, in the dark and snow, on the only pavement in Barrow; Bethany and I pulled on our heavy parkas before we deplaned.  Barrow’s airport has no jetway; we crunched across packed snow and ice to the terminal.  Between Barrow and Anchorage the cold had hardened to 15 degrees below zero, small snowflakes fell. 

The community pitches in for baggage handling at the airport.  Natives, who prefer the term Inuit to Eskimo, comprise more than half the population of Barrow.    

A container of milk ruptured in the baggage during the flight and spilled over the baggage infrastructure; I grabbed paper towels from the restroom, mopped as best I could, and tried to direct the luggage away from the drying residue.

I noted less airport chaos on my arrival this time than on my first trip; only half the plane had people. 

Outside, the full moon lit the snow-covered scene.  Despite the dangerous cold that greeted us, a few young men in their late teens wore baggy shorts and flip-flops.


Five referrals south to save life and limb, getting fingerprinted, and an ice cream bar from home.

June 24, 2010

I’m just trying to keep folks alive

My off-slope referrals were five

     At the station I lingered

     While cops printed my fingers

At the end of a leisurely drive.

I just finished a twelve-hour call shift, which is not an excessively long call. 

Out of respect for the patient I won’t give identifying details of the day’s first patient’s bizarre presentation.  I can say that between the time the patient came in and the time that the patient left, I could see in the face a sense of wellness returning.  It required a good amount of work on my part with several phone calls, a consult from a colleague, and five forms to fill out.

“I sent five patients off slope today” is not something you will hear said anywhere but the North Slope of Alaska, and the linguistic device reflects a cultural thought process.  The Brooks Range runs more or less east-west across the top third of Alaska.  The land slopes gradually downwards and northwards to the Arctic Ocean.  The North Slope is close to the size of Montana, the population is less than 10,000.  Barrow is the largest town at 4500.  The roads that connect the rest of the world only come to Prudhoe Bay; the well publicized Ice Road is a temporary phenomenon that ends with spring.  Commerce between settlements can be by plane or boat or snowmobile, depending on the season.

I was instrumental in sending five patients off slope today, away from the unique cultural assumptions of the North Slope.  Three were sent by Medevac, two went by commercial jet.

ATVs and snowmobiles are necessities of life here; they are the vehicles that feed the towns.  With so many of the two passenger gas burners around, no wonder people get hurt with them. 

Barrow lacks CT, and we send a lot of patients to places like Anchorage where CTs are common.  They can find diseases and conditions that endanger life and limb.

In the middle of the steady intensity of ER coverage, I had to go get fingerprinted. 

My employer here is the Arctic Slope Native Association, or ASNA, which is a bureaucracy.  Though run by Inuit, it is subject to the vagaries of all bureaucracies.  For unknown reasons, they wanted four sets of my fingerprints. 

The police station is four blocks from the hospital, and one of the hospital’s expediters drove me in one of ASNA’s vehicles.  When I left the ER, I checked out to a colleague one of the patients in the middle stages of being Medevac’d out.  I left the hospital wearing scrubs and a white coat, into 40 degree fresh air.  The police station maintains an anteroom for those waiting to be fingerprinted.  I waited in line and I didn’t fret about waiting

My clinical duties were being handled while I was away from the clinic.  I was in the service of my employer and I had time to breathe.  It was a good break.  When the policeman called my name I shared my relaxed attitude.  He took my prints professionally and we had a good time chatting. 

I’m no longer the boss.  I enjoy my position as an employee.

Back at the clinic, I arranged transport out for an injured patient.  Supper was the best corned beef brisket ever, but I ate dessert first.

It was an ice cream sandwich from Wells Blue Bunny, just north of Sioux City.