I’m feeling more lethargic and less energetic these days. I heard that happens here in the throes of Winter. By 5pm it feels so late and dark! Luckily today my last patient didn’t show up, and I got out of the clinic by 4:30pm!!!! So I ran down to the beach with Guy to soak up the last of the sunset (sunset is at 4pm today!).
First day of work tomorrow!!! While getting ready for it, I’ve been reflecting back on how I got here… Because it feels crazy to be here, and I’m so excited and nervous to be a “real” doctor (ie not a resident) in the middle of nowhere, for my first job! And I realized most of this story I’ve left out on this blog, so to back-track to the Spring…
I got a message in my email that read: “Full-spectrum Family Medicine with OB (Obstetrics), in Alaska!“ It was exactly what I want to do…but then I found out this was not just anywhere in Alaska. This was way, way up North in Nome. Just below the Arctic Circle. I had never heard of it before! However, after talking with the recruiter and Dr. Head, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least check it out. So I came up to interview in April~It looked like pictures of Antarctica that I’ve seen in National Geographic.
But I immediately liked it here. Time slows down in Nome, and sometimes it feels like it even runs backwards. We walked off the plane onto the tarmac, in a little airport building where everyone coming mingles with everyone going. It’s very relaxed, and it feels just like airports used to be.
I was met by the loveliest, kindest people, Rhonda and John, who reminded me of family. The close-knit feeling of the community was evident when they introduced me to random people at the airport, who were either coming or going. From a non-motorized baggage claim (much like the ones in Goroka or Wewak), I picked up my backpack. Town wasn’t far away.
On this visit, I got to meet tons of people~I think more than I would in a big city~in the hospital and around town. I interviewed with an amazing doctor, Dr. Head, the medical director, who is passionate and committed to serving this community. Most people I met had an inspired reason for working here. The hospital is newly built and beautiful, and it’s on stilts! It features local artwork on its walls, with some walls painted the colors of the tundra. The Norton Sound serves a catchment area the size of the state of Colorado, a huge space with not very many people. And so photos of the remote, outlying villages hang on the walls throughout the building, like reminders of purpose. It was clear that people take a lot of pride in the care and services they provide.
I observed “radio traffic” in the afternoon, which is exactly like what my Mom used to do in the village—call on our shortwave radio to the radio doctor to ask medical advice. Of course now it is done with a phone. Alaska has a unique healthcare model compared to the Lower 48—more like developing countries, where they have Community Health Aids (CHA) who provide basic village health and then consult and send out patients when they are too sick to stay. The reason is that it’s too vast and many places don’t have roads, and there are not enough higher level healthcare providers to cover the remote areas. They developed a phenomenal curriculum, similar to the jungle medicine book we used: “Where There Is No Doctor” to educate the CHAs. Providers also get to go on health outreach out to the villages to have a real, physical presence there.
Another highlight was meeting Dr. Harry Owens, a physician who embodies the heart and soul of medicine, who helps weary medical students and residents remember *why* they are doing what they are doing. He wrote a beautiful book titled, “A Healer’s Call” with short, poignant stories that capture the essence of healing. I met Dr. O’neill, a long-term doctor here, passionate about serving the people. I met so many committed, hardworking, caring people that truly love Nome. I felt refreshed in my calling to medicine…and that is probably the ultimate thing drawing me here.
And the town of Nome was fascinating. It has a very rustic, wild-west, hunkered-down feel to it. The grocery stores are more like trade stores (think Papindo or Tang Mow in PNG), refreshingly lacking excess of choices and brands. It’s about the basics, the essence of life. Something I have felt distant from while living in any given metropolis. Muskoxen, bears, caribou and reindeer roam just outside (or sometimes in) the town. Children run free and play outside, even in the streets. Muddy streets. They wear muck boots in water deeper than the top of their boots. Often outside biking till the sun goes down. And when I was here in April, the sun set at around 11pm and darkness fell around midnight.
It was such a pleasure to meet wonderful people in the community, especially Phil and Sarah Hofstetter. I had been reading their blog before arriving in Nome to try to get an idea what it was like to live there, and from them, it seemed like it could be pretty cool. One night I got to go over to their house when they were having a music gathering:
where she teaches music and a lot of people in the community sell their arts and crafts, jewelry, knitting among other beautiful, handmade things. It is attached to the coffee shop, Bering Tea Co. which is a gem of its own.
I loved how much of a presence there was from the native people –working in the hospital, and in businesses around town. Granted, I’m sure it’s not perfect, and there are struggles with all things human, but at least it seems they aren’t relegated to an ignored existence.
Then there was so much to do—even in winter, like snow-mobiling (here it’s called snow machining), snow shoeing, driving out on the local stretches of roads to villages and places like Salmon lake and the mountains, snowboarding—on smaller mountains that you can hike up, plus water activities on the Bering Sea in the summer. Lots of people love it for hunting and fishing, and in general living off the land. The community hosts tons of activities and events, like the finish line of the Iditarod, art and craft fairs, 4th of July games.
There are the obvious things that I was nervous about~like the long dark winters featuring bitter cold, subzero temperatures, and being so far away from family. But after interviewing several other places—including Homer, Alaska (drop dead gorgeous!)—and having a choice of jobs, there was something about Nome that just drew me back. In spite of my fears, to come to Nome meant to follow what I felt was right in my heart.
The day I left, with a one-way ticket in hand, I had a panic attack. Thinking “WHAT am I doing, going to Nome?!? What am I getting into? …and now there’s no turning back!” Anyway, here I am… I am mostly settled into the idea of it, and so far it is surprisingly wonderful here! I’m glad I made the leap.
And here is where the beginning of the blog picks up…